North Korea’s delegation at the World Health Assembly threw its support behind the World Health Organization (WHO) and criticized countries that blamed the United Nations agency for the coronavirus outbreak.
In a statement during the assembly, the delegation said WHO member states should be “wary” of countries that are trying to use the “catastrophe for their impure political purposes.” The North Koreans didn’t mention any country by name but said it was an “expression of irresponsibility” to blame the WHO or one of the member states for the outbreak if a country ignored “the warnings of WHO with no proper action.”
President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials have been severely critical of the WHO’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in his statement at the assembly that one of the primary reasons the outbreak “spun out of control” was the WHO’s failure to “obtain the information the world needed.”
Azar also claimed at least one member state “made mockery of their transparency obligations” in an attempt to conceal the outbreak, thereby creating “tremendous costs for the entire world.”
On Tuesday, member states approved a resolution that, among other things, called for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to initiate an evaluation of the “experience gained and lessons learned” from the WHO’s response to the pandemic.
While North Korea’s delegation said it supported the resolution, it added in its statement that such topics as “someone’s responsibility” or Taiwan’s membership in the assembly—an issue Azar raised—were inappropriate. The North Koreans claimed this deviated from what should be the focus of the discussion, which was a collaborative response to the coronavirus.
More than 4.8 million people worldwide have been confirmed as infected with the new coronavirus, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. North Korea claims to have not had a single case, a success the delegation attributed to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s “prominent leadership.”
Experts are skeptical of North Korea’s zero case claim. Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst and North Korea expert with the Brookings Institution, told USA Today it’s a “near impossibility” that the country has no infections.
Bruce Klingner, an ex-CIA deputy division chief for Korea, said it was “hard to believe” there weren’t any cases but noted that it’s possible the outbreak was limited. Unlike the information about mass graves that came out in the 1990s, when an estimated 2 million to 3.5 million North Koreans died, Klingner said people aren’t hearing about “bodies being stacked like cordwood.”
WHO officials have acknowledged that there would likely be lessons to be learned from the outbreak, and Ghebreyesus said Monday he would initiate an independent review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” However, he has denied claims that the organization failed to properly warn the world about the threat posed by the new coronavirus.