Schools in North Korea shut down for the rest of 2021 due to quarantine emergency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un blamed senior ruling party officials for their failures in stopping the spread of COVID-19, days after local sources told RFA that authorities had closed all schools nationwide until the end of the year, despite claims that the country remains completely virus-free.
The remarks came during Tuesday’s Second Enlarged Meeting of the Political Bureau of the Eighth Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party.
“Senior officials in charge of important state affairs neglected the implementation of the important decisions of the Party… and thus caused a crucial case of creating a great crisis… and entailed grave consequences,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Kim as saying.
“He seriously pointed out that chronic irresponsibility and incompetence of cadres at present bring artificial difficulties to the implementation of the Party’s policies,” the report said.
Though Kim did not specifically mention which senior officials had failed or any specific consequences of their failure, several South-Korea-based experts told RFA that the meeting revealed that something is amiss in North Korea.
“The purpose of this meeting is to shift the responsibility for the difficult economic situation on the party officials,” Cho Han-bum, a senior Researcher at Korea Institute of National Unification, told RFA.
“It can be seen as evidence that the task put forward by General Secretary Kim Jong Un is not being properly implemented,” Kim In-tae of the Institute for National Security Strategy told RFA.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute told RFA, “There is a possibility that there has been a major problem with the coronavirus quarantine in border areas between North Korea and China including Sinuiju and Hyesan.”
A Washington-based expert told RFA that it was likely that COVID-19 had entered North Korea, but that Kim is handing out the blame preemptively in case there is a crisis later.
“And what he is trying to do is sort of get ahead of it, start blaming people now, so if this does get worse… [and] if he has to actually bring in the outside world for some sort of help… if he has to basically grovel a little bit to the international community and show that he’s not as self-reliant as he wants to be, he has a little bit of political cover to do that,” said Harry Kazianis, Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
Daniel Wertz of the National Committee on North Korea told RFA that because Kim was vague during the meeting, North Korea Watchers could only speculate as to how the senior officials failed.
“I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that there has been a major COVID outbreak in North Korea, or that Pyongyang is preparing to ask for international assistance,” said Wertz.
“I think the main audience for this message is a domestic one. Kim Jong Un is telling Party officials at all levels to stay vigilant and stay loyal, and warning of the consequences of what will happen if they don’t,” he said.
North Korea has not reported a single confirmed case of the virus to date, but its COVID-free status is widely doubted by outside experts, who point to Pyongyang’s extensive measures to keep COVID-19 at bay, including sacrificing its economy by closing the border with China and suspending all trade.
Additionally, the government has locked down entire cities and counties where the virus was suspected to be spreading and cancelled major cultural events, and hospitals have been known to hastily cremate patients who died of flu-like symptoms.
Education on hold
The government’s measures against coronavirus have also disrupted education. RFA reported in July 2020 that the government had ordered schools to break for summer vacation, even though they had opened only one month prior.
After several starts and stops, schools eventually did reopen for good in April 2021, but now they must shut down for the rest of the year.
“The education ministry gave the order to stop classes in all schools from elementary school to university two days ago,” a resident of the North Korean capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service June 27.
“I heard that the schools will be completely closed until December,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The school closure is absolute nationwide and includes Pyongyang, which is often spared from policies that affect the rest of the country, according to the source.
“Since the coronavirus is an urgent issue, schools are locking up all classrooms and prohibiting students from going to school in accordance with the order,” said the source.
“The order… strongly instructs students not to engage in outside activities and to stay home while school is closed,” the source said.
To enforce the order, educational authorities in each region of the country are assembling student patrols to make sure they don’t gather in crowds in public squares and local markets, according to the source.
“The school authorities repeatedly ordered schools to open and close because of the virus last year too but they reopened normally in April of this year. Even so, students were unable to have normal classes due to being mobilized,” said the source, referring to the North Korean government’s practice of using citizens as free labor for government projects like road maintenance or construction.
“If schools are closed for such a long time like this again, are we entirely giving up on education for our students?” said the source.
The source was critical of the government, pointing out that the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party had declared during January’s Eighth Party Congress that it would increase the intensity of emergency quarantine measures and enter “a long-term war” against the virus.
“Will this quarantine work properly if all we’re doing is closing schools and stopping people from moving around when we have no medical means to stop the coronavirus?” he asked.
Another source, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong confirmed to RFA June 29 that schools were closing down for the year.
“The residents are complaining, saying ‘they barely reopened the schools at the end of April, and it was only two months before they closed them again. How are our students going to learn anything when school is closed until the end of this year?’” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“They say ‘the authorities are promoting that the whole world is envious of our great country and showering us with praise for protecting lives and ensuring the safety of our people in the midst of the turmoil caused by the pandemic’s rapid spread. But if that is the case, are other countries also closing their schools for half a year because of the coronavirus?’”
In Washington, D.C., where RFA is headquartered, public schools were shut down in the spring of 2020 and did not reopen for in-person learning for more than a year, though most students were able to participate in classes virtually. It was not immediately clear to RFA whether a similar at-home learning system would be in place in North Korea.
The second North Korean source continued, “Residents are outraged at the long-term school closure because the authorities always emphasize how there has been no confirmed case of coronavirus in North Korea so far.”
“They spread propaganda that other countries should learn from virus-free socialist North Korea, a model country for the prevention of the spread of coronavirus,” he said.
Reported by Jieun Kim, Yongjae Mok and Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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