There was no mention of coronavirus, but North Korean state media claimed Wednesday that the isolated nation will build a vast new general hospital in Pyongyang by October to confront any possible public health threats.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a ceremony to break ground on the hospital, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, which cited state media in Pyongyang as calling the development a “crucial task” to prop up public health.
While the Kim regime has yet to declare a single confirmed case of coronavirus, it is reported to have closed its borders with China and imposed sharp quarantine measures, while some global health experts warn it may be covering up a massive outbreak.
How the situation stands to impact denuclearization diplomacy that has stalled between the U.S. and North Korea over the past year remains to be seen.
David Maxwell, a North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington said Wednesday that a potential coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could make the Kim regime less willing that it already is to engage in nuclear talks.
“I fear that if the [North] is suffering from an outbreak it will only harden its positions and it will shift its nuclear blackmail diplomacy from trying to gain political and economic concessions to warnings of stay out of north Korean business and do not meddle in [North] Korean affairs,” Mr. Maxwell wrote in comments circulated via email.
Yonhap cited Mr. Kim as saying at Wednesday’s hospital groundbreaking that his government is setting about a “crucial task to which top-priority state efforts should be directed under whatever conditions and environments to prop up the field of public health.”
The North Korean leader has ordered the hospital construction to be completed by the 75th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea on Oct. 10, according to Yonhap, which cited the North’s Korean Central News Agency as saying Mr. Kim “pressed the button of the blasting machine” to start the hospital’s construction in Pyongyang.