By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has attended a ceremony to break ground on a general hospital in Pyongyang, calling it a "crucial task" to prop up the country's public health, state media reported Wednesday.
The ceremony to begin the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital marked Kim's first reported public activity in the capital city in about three weeks. Recent state media reports suggested that Kim had been away from Pyongyang to observe military drills along the east coast, including the latest one March 9.
Speculation swirled that his unusually long absence from Pyongyang might have to do with coronavirus fears.
"Our party set it as a political matter of maintaining and glorifying the image of the Korean-style socialism and as a crucial task to which top-priority state efforts should be directed under whatever conditions and environments to prop up the field of public health," he was quoted as saying during the event.
Kim ordered the hospital construction to be completed by the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) on Oct. 10 and "pressed the button of the blasting machine" to start its construction, the KCNA said.
It is rare for the North Korean leader to make an address at such events. It is unclear whether the construction could be completed as scheduled given that just seven months are left before the target date.
Kim did not mention the new coronavirus, nor did the KCNA. But his emphasis on public health came as Pyongyang is making all-out efforts to prevent the COVID-19 outbreaks on its soil by blocking its border and toughening quarantine criteria.
Pyongyang has yet reported any confirmed coronavirus infection, though its media has reported that there are thousands of people under medical supervision for potential infection.
The ground-breaking event was also attended by top government and party officials, including Premier Kim Jae-ryong, Pak Pong-ju, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and Pak Tae-song, vice chairman of the WPK Central Committee.
Photos released by the KCNA showed a group of workers joined the ground-breaking event with most of them wearing masks. Kim and other senior officials were seen not wearing masks.
Landslide victory likely to strengthen Moon's foreign policy hand
Nuclear talks in limbo one year after no-deal Hanoi summit
Moon hopes for spring summit with Trump, feasibility still a question
Trump's change in N.K. diplomacy team, reelection focus muddy prospects of U.S. engagement
(News Focus) Seoul's push for individual tours to North meaningful but many hurdles ahead: experts