SEOUL, March 18 (UPI) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called bolstering public health capacity in North Korea a "crucial task" at a groundbreaking ceremony for a hospital in Pyongyang, state-run media reported Wednesday.
"To be honest, our party analyzed and evaluated the current state of the country's health and medical sectors thoroughly and scientifically and criticized the fact that there was no modern medical health facility in the country's capital," Kim said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
The drive to "prop up the field of public health" is "a crucial task to which top-priority state efforts should be directed under whatever conditions and environments," Kim said at the ceremony, which was held on Tuesday.
The appearance was the first publicly reported sighting of the North Korean leader in the capital in weeks, which had led to speculation that he had been trying to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. He was previously reported overseeing military drills on the east coast of the country earlier this month.
While North Korean state media regularly update the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in South Korea, the cloistered communist country has still reported no patients of its own.
However, many observers call those claims doubtful.
In a briefing with reporters on Friday, Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said that anecdotal evidence such as a lack of military activity indicates that there are very likely COVID-19 cases in North Korea.
"It is a closed-off nation, so we can't say emphatically that they have cases, but we're fairly certain they do," Abrams said. "What I do know is that their armed forces had been fundamentally in a lockdown for about 30 days and only recently have they started routine training again."
Health and government officials around the world have expressed concern about the ability of North Korea's limited health infrastructure to handle an outbreak of COVID-19.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak," Morgan Ortagus, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement in February.
North Korea closed its borders to foreign travelers in January, soon after reports began emerging that the coronavirus was sickening hundreds in neighboring China.
A news report in the Pyongyang Times last week highlighted North Korea's ongoing efforts to "prevent COVID-19 from entering and spreading in the country," which include inspection and quarantine of goods coming into the country, school closures and public awareness campaigns.
Kim did not mention COVID-19 at the hospital groundbreaking ceremony. He called for the hospital to be completed by the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea on Oct. 10. and "personally pressed the button of the blasting machine" to start construction, KCNA reported.