SEOUL, Sept. 3 (UPI) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called on officials to tighten COVID-19 prevention measures and to improve damage control for extreme weather caused by climate change, state media reported on Friday.
Kim led a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea on Thursday, state-run Korean Central News Agency reported. The isolated country has been struggling economically while facing food shortages due to a prolonged border closure and flood damage from typhoons.
At the meeting, Kim said that protecting against the effects of climate change was "more important than anything else."
"Disastrous weather is getting ever more pronounced worldwide and our country is also lying vulnerable to its danger," Kim said, tasking officials with implementing crisis control measures such as "river improvement, afforestation for erosion control, dike maintenance and tide embankment projects."
North Korea has seen its crops severely impacted by a series of typhoons over the past two summers as well as a heatwave and drought this year. In June, Kim acknowledged that the food situation was "getting tense."
The United Nations estimated in July that North Korea was short 860,000 tons of food and warned that the country could face a "harsh lean period" between August and October.
At the meeting, Kim called on officials to "attain without fail" the planned grain production goal for the year and said it was necessary to "fully mobilize the labor force."
North Korea regularly compels citizens including prisoners, soldiers and students to contribute forced labor to large-scale public projects, experts say. A 2020 report from the U.S. State Department called forced labor a "pillar of the [North Korean] economic system."
The practice has been increasingly used to shore up North Korea's flagging economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote this week.
"These so-called 'volunteer' mobilizations of people to work in mines, farms, or construction sites involve backbreaking labor under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions for long periods of time with little or no pay," Lina Yoon, an HRW senior researcher, wrote in an article on Thursday.
Refusal to work can result in punishment including torture and long imprisonment, Yoon said.
Kim also warned of continued dangers from COVID-19, calling for "further tightening the nationwide epidemic prevention, given the further worsening worldwide health crisis."
North Korea continues to claim that it has not had any COVID-19 cases, an assertion that analysts outside of the country doubt.
Pyongyang took early and extreme measures to prevent an outbreak, including sealing its borders in January 2020, a move that has curtailed most of its commercial activity with main trading partner China.
Despite the significant economic fallout from the pandemic, North Korean officials recently rejected a shipment of nearly 3 million doses of China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines offered by global sharing facility COVAX, according to UNICEF. Pyongyang requested that the vaccines instead be redirected to countries facing serious outbreaks.
North Korea also refused to accept doses of the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX over concerns about side effects, according to a July presentation by South Korea's Institute of National Security Strategy, a think tank connected to the country's spy agency.