The third day of the Eighth Party Congress commenced without participants wearing masks. Daily NK has learned, however, that even as the roughly 7,000 participants (according to the North Korean media) take part in indoor events with little in the way of social distancing, North Korean authorities are strictly checking whether they are wearing masks.

According to a Daily NK source in Pyongyang on Friday, military uniform-clad agents of the Ministry of Social Security were checking whether the participants were wearing masks right up to the moment they entered the April 25 House of Culture, where the congress is being held. However, the participants must remove their masks just before they enter the venue.

In fact, if you look at photos of the congress in the Rodong Sinmun, none of the participants are wearing masks, and large numbers of people fill the venue with no empty seats.

However, the authorities are reportedly forcing participants to wear masks after the events have ended. Basically – for appearance’s sake – the authorities are making people take off their masks only during the congress’s main event, which is shown to the international community. 

North Korea’s leadership reportedly weeded out and replaced participants who showed signs of fever prior to the start of the congress, and they considered making ordinary participants seated outside of the leadership podium wear masks during the main event as well.

Ultimately, however, the authorities felt the image of participants wearing masks during the congress, North Korea’s biggest political event, could harm national prestige and amplify the people’s unease regarding COVID-19.

Rodong Sinmun reported on Jan. 8 that the third meeting of the Eighth Party Congress had commenced on Jan. 7. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Moreover, Daily NK’s source said that with the authorities emphasizing the congress as an “especially noteworthy major event,” there was little choice but for participants to take their masks. That is to say, there was no room for “imperfections” since the authorities must use the archival film footage of the event for years to come.

The source said that with the international community – including South Korea and the United States – keeping a close eye on the congress, the decision to have everyone remove their masks reflected the need to show off to the world how well the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea is doing in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of spectators at the event was reportedly larger compared to past events. According to North Korean media reports, there were 2,000 spectators at the latest congress, as opposed to the 1,387 who took part in the seventh congress in May 2016.

There are reportedly rumors in the country that the authorities pushed ahead with the “no mask” congress because North Korean leader Kim needed to be able to read the expressions and moods of the participants.

There are also rumors that the authorities took the measure because they felt wearing masks in front of Kim would “damage his authority.” 

Another Daily NK source confirmed this, saying that the leadership would deem it “unforgettable” if anyone was to cover one’s face at an event Kim was attending. “It’s reactionary to cover your face with a mask or hat unless given special permission by the Supreme Leader,” he noted. 

North Korean officials have worn masks during on-site guidance visits by Kim, but the source said situation surrounding the congress “is different.” Participants could take their masks during the congress “because the preparatory committee thoroughly prepared, carrying out coronavirus tests,” he said.

Meanwhile, even as North Korean authorities hold large-scale indoor events without masks, they have emphasized that ordinary citizens should comply with COVID-19 quarantine rules. On Friday, the Rodong Sinmun called the “emergency anti-epidemic campaign” a “critical revolutionary task” that should take first priority at all guard posts and workplaces as the country enters the new year.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.