Feb. 18 (UPI) -- North Korea's health minister claimed Tuesday the country has no confirmed cases of the new strain of coronavirus.
O Chun Bok, Pyongyang's minister of public health, said in an interview with Korea Central Television there are also no "suspected patients" of COVID-19, as the death toll exceeded 1,800 in neighboring China. The two countries share an 880-mile border that has yet to be completely sealed, owing to North Korea's trade relations with Beijing.
"There has not been one suspected patient of the new strain of coronavirus in our country," O said, while wearing a face mask on television. "But this could bring about carelessness [in hygiene] among the populace."
O cautioned "neglectful attitudes" could lead to undesirable consequences, in what appeared to be a warning to ordinary North Koreans against letting down their guard against the virus.
In January, North Korea declared a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak and suspended tourism. O's statement came the same day Song In Bom, an official with Pyongyang's emergency health affairs committee, told Korean Workers' Party paper Rodong Sinmun the country must "keep up preventative projects without slowing down."
Earlier in the month, North Korea claimed the government had set up emergency control centers in different regions and that the regime is waging a war against COVID-19.
Defectors in the South have said North Korea is deeply unprepared to deal with a deadly outbreak, citing inadequate health facilities and weakened immunity among the population due to decades of malnutrition.
North Korea's decision to further isolate itself from the outside world comes at a time when Seoul may be taking a brief pause from inter-Korea proposals.
South Korean news service News 1 reported Tuesday Seoul's unification ministry confirmed no progress on new initiatives, including independent South Korean tourism to the North, and a railroad that once connected the two Koreas.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul also said the individual or independent tourism proposal does not violate sanctions, and that the United States and South Korea "agreed" the policy does not break international law, according to the report.