Asia Today: Kim urges North Koreans to keep up virus fight

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to maintain alertness against the coronavirus, warning that complacency risked “unimaginable and irretrievable crisis,” state media said Friday.

Despite the warning, Kim reaffirmed North Korea’s claim to not have had a single case of COVID-19, telling a ruling party meeting Thursday that the country has “thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus” despite the worldwide health crisis.

Outsiders widely doubt North Korea escaped the pandemic entirely, given its poor health infrastructure and close trade and travel ties to China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year.

Describing its anti-virus efforts as a “matter of national existence,” North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms of the disease.

Experts say the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The Korean Central News Agency said Kim during a meeting of the politburo of the Workers’ Party “stressed the need to maintain maximum alert without a slight self-complacence or relaxation” as the virus continues to spread in neighboring countries.

The agency said Kim sharply criticized inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules and warned that a “hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis.”

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published several photos of Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks. Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials who participated were wearing masks.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Authorities in Thailand are urging vigilance as the country celebrates its first long holiday weekend after lifting most coronavirus restrictions. Many Thais are expected to return from the cities where they work to their family homes in rural areas over the July 4-7 holiday, which incorporates two Buddhist holy days. Such reunions usually take place during the traditional Songkran New Year’s holiday in April, but this year those celebrations were canceled and travel restricted because of the pandemic. Asked about the risk of the virus spreading over the long weekend, the spokesman for the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, Taweesin Witsanuyothin, said “This is our real concern.” The Transport Ministry says it is preparing for 7.6 million people to travel between provinces. As part of the easing of restrictions, Bangkok’s Skytrain system and subway relaxed their rules this week and no longer require social distancing, including empty seats between passengers. Thailand has had 3,180 confirmed cases, including 58 deaths. For more than five weeks, the small number of new cases has been limited to infected Thais returning from abroad.

— Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the capital confirmed 124 new coronavirus cases on Friday, exceeding 100 for a second day in a row. She urged extra caution and asked residents to stay away from nightlife districts linked to half of the cases. It was the most new cases in a day since 154 were confirmed May 2, when Japan was under a pandemic state of emergency. Koike said the increase reflects more testing, but expressed concern about a significant number of untraceable cases that increase the risk of more infections. She said a reinstatement of business closure requests is a possibility if the government issues another state of emergency, but in specific establishments or districts of Tokyo instead of the entire capital. Japan has reported a total of 19,068 cases, including 976 deaths, as of Thursday. Tokyo accounts to about one-third of the national total.

— Australian authorities are considering locking down more suburbs in Melbourne, where 66 new coronavirus cases were reported. Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said suburbs with more than five cases and a high infection rate could be added to the 36 that have been locked down since Wednesday. Sydney, Australia’s largest city, said a man who recently tested positive had been working in a Balmain supermarket. Around 50 supermarket staff have gone into isolation. Health authorities have urged people who visited the supermarket and show symptoms to be tested.

— South Korea reported 63 new coronavirus cases as health authorities scramble to mobilize public health tools to the southwestern city of Gwangju, where an outbreak is growing. Thirty-one of the new cases were from the Seoul area and 13 were from the southeastern city of Daegu, both centers of earlier outbreaks. Six of the new cases came from Gwangju, which had one of the smallest caseloads among major South Korean cities before this week. The municipal government has shut hundreds of schools and banned many large gatherings. Neighboring provinces are providing dozens of hospital beds and planning to send medical personnel to help Gwangju.

— China on Friday reported five new cases of coronavirus, two of them in Beijing and three brought from outside the country. Strict quarantine, social distancing and case tracing measures have helped radically bring down infections. Mask wearing is still universal in indoor spaces, and many venues also require proof on a cellphone app that the person is healthy. Beijing has tested 10 million people as it battles its now dwindling outbreak that infected more than 300 people, officials said Friday. They announced Beijing would lift a requirement starting Saturday that anyone leaving the city must have a negative coronavirus test result within the past seven days.

— Cambodia has decided to allow the reopening of the country’s 193 licensed casinos, which were ordered closed in March to control the coronavirus. Prime Minister Hun Sen said the casinos, which attract many foreign tourists, must get permission from the Health Ministry to ensure they follow guidelines to safeguard their clients’ health, a government statement said Friday. It said Hun Sen told his Cabinet that the casinos can reopen because the country’s coronavirus situation is under control. It also said the re-openings would boost the economy and give casino workers back their jobs. Cambodia has had 141 confirmed coronavirus cases with no reported deaths.

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