SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- The coronavirus pandemic has likely taken a heavy toll on North Korea, forcing leader Kim Jong Un to avoid public activities and his people into panic buying for daily necessities, South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers Wednesday.
Although North Korea has taken intense quarantine measures, it maintains there are no domestic infections. Many outside experts are skeptical and warn that an epidemic could be dire because of the North's fragile health care system.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service told a closed-door parliamentary committee in Seoul that the pandemic is one of the reasons why Kim Jong Un has made much fewer public appearances this year, according to Kim Byung Kee, one of the lawmakers who attended the spy agency meeting.
As of Wednesday, Kim Jong Un appeared in public 17 times this year, compared with an average of 50 appearances in the same time period each year since he took power in late 2011, the lawmaker said, citing the NIS.
The NIS said it cannot rule out a virus outbreak in North Korea because traffic along the China-North Korea border was active before the North closed crossings in January to try to stop the spread of the virus, according to the lawmaker.
The NIS declined to confirm Kim's comments in line with its practice of not commenting on information it provides to lawmakers. Kim did not discuss how the NIS obtained its information.
Last Friday, Kim Jong Un ended his 20-day public absence when he appeared at a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang. His time away triggered rumors about his health and worries about the future of his country.
The NIS repeated a South Korean government assessment that Kim remained in charge of state affairs even during his absence. His visit to the factory was aimed at showing his resolve to address public livelihood problems and inject people with confidence, Kim Byung Kee cited the NIS as saying.
The NIS said the virus pandemic is hurting North Korea's economy, mainly because of the border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and aid provider. China accounts for about 90% of North Korea's external trade flow.
The trade volume between North Korea and China in the first quarter of this year was $230 million, a 55% decline from the same period last year. In March, the bilateral trade volume suffered a 91% drop, the NIS was quoted as saying.
This led to the prices of imported foodstuffs such as sugar and seasonings skyrocketing, Kim Byung Kee quoted the spy agency as saying. He said the NIS also told lawmakers that residents in Pyongyang, the capital, recently rushed to department stores and other shops to stock up on daily necessities and waited in long lines.
The NIS said prices in North Korea "are being stabilized a little bit" after authorities clamped down on people cornering the market, Kim said in a televised briefing.
In recent months, Kim Jong Un conducted a spate of missile and other weapons tests in what analysts said were attempts to upgrade the North's weapons programs. Earlier, Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal and build up internal strength to withstand U.S.-led sanctions amid stalled denuclearization talks with President Donald Trump.