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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un congratulated Chinese leader Xi Jinping for “registering success” in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Friday.
Kim’s greeting — delivered as a “verbal message” to Xi, according to KCNA — are some of the first public remarks from the DPRK leader since reappearing after an unexplained three-week-long disappearance from the public eye, which had led to widespread speculation and rumors that he might be severely ill or even dead.
It also comes as many experts and officials have said that North Korea is almost certainly suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic — even though Pyongyang has repeatedly denied that the country has any infections at all.
“Kim Jong Un in his message extended his warm greetings to Xi Jinping and congratulated him, highly appreciating that he is seizing a chance of victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic and strategically and tactically controlling the overall situation while leading the Chinese party and people,” KCNA said.
“Saying that he was pleased over the successes made in China as over his own, Kim Jong Un wished Xi Jinping good health, expressing conviction that the Chinese party and people would cement the successes made so far and steadily expand them and thus win a final victory under the wise guidance of Xi Jinping,” it continued.
The worldwide COVID-19 outbreak began in the Chinese city of Wuhan during the winter, but Beijing has said that it now has the virus under control.
In parts of China where the new coronavirus first captured the world’s attention and caused an uncertain number of deaths, quarantines and lockdowns have now ended and life is beginning to return to normal, according to reports.
By contrast, North Korea never had the coronavirus, according to Pyongyang — but the DPRK still took drastic steps to keep the virus out and, perhaps, stem any unreported outbreaks of the disease.
The country locked down its borders as COVID-19 was spreading in China in January, put thousands of residents — including foreign diplomats — in a strict quarantine, and halted military training exercises for weeks.
The military’s pause ended in late February and was followed by the North’s busiest month of missile tests ever.
North Korea also shut down much of its trade with the outside world — by land and by sea — likely due to the border closure.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner by far, but in March, while the DPRK’s borders were still essentially closed, Beijing sent only a tiny volume of goods to its neighbor, according to Chinese customs data.
Reports of some panic buying in grocery stores have since emerged from Pyongyang in recent weeks, but North Korea’s ports have also returned to more normal activity, according to satellite imagery.
Kim’s greeting to Xi ended with a statement lauding the DPRK-Chinese relationship for its ability to keep improving “with each passing day,” according to KCNA.
“Saying that the relations between the two parties of the DPRK and China which were firmly consolidated while overcoming all sorts of trials and challenges of history are getting close and further developing on good terms with each passing day, he sent militant greetings to every member of the Communist Party of China,” KCNA said.
One expert told NK News that Kim’s message on Friday is a sign of just how much the relationship between the two neighbors has healed since the North last tested its nuclear weapons and China — a permanent member of the UN Security Council — supported punishing sanctions that have squeezed the North’s economy.
“Kim’s message is further evidence of the substantial improvement we’ve seen in DPRK-PRC relations since the ‘bad old days’ of 2016-2017,” said Evans Revere, a former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“Those ties bottomed out during that period, but both sides have made a sustained efforts to refurbish, restore, and strengthen relations since then,” he said.
But Revere added that Kim Jong Un may not have sent his message to Xi Jinping merely for the sake of being nice.
“Kim’s message was sent as the DPRK is contending with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has almost certainly affected North Korea in a major, and possibly horrific, way,” said Revere. “North Korea’s long border with China and its heavy reliance on the PRC for trade, aid, and survival has resulted in the North’s exposure to the virus.”
“North Korea’s pandemic plight is of Chinese origin,” he added, “but the price Pyongyang has had to pay for maintaining good relations with Beijing is not only to avoid criticism of China, but to praise Beijing for the way it has handled the COVID-19 outbreak. Hence the positive language in Kim’s message.”
“But I can’t help but think that the message may be Kim Jong Un’s way of reminding Xi Jinping that he — Kim — has been a good neighbor and ally, and that he expects China to reward his loyalty and silence in a big way,” Revere continued. “Stay tuned!”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un congratulated Chinese leader Xi Jinping for "registering success" in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Friday.
Kim's greeting -- delivered as a "verbal message" to Xi, according to KCNA -- are some of the first public remarks from the DPRK leader since reappearing after an unexplained three-week-long disappearance from the public eye, which had led to widespread speculation and rumors that he might be severely ill or even dead.