North Korean health chiefs risk being purged by Kim Jong-un after reports emerged claiming the coronavirus has killed around 180 soldiers.
The dictator warned a summit of senior party officials late last month that there would be “serious consequences” if Covid-19 was able to enter the country.
North Korea is still officially denying that the virus has hit the hermit kingdom, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Reports from South Korea claim roughly 180 North Korean soldiers have succumbed to the virus.
And some fear the secretive regime will blame a scapegoat.
A source in the North’s military revealed the 180 deaths to South Korea’s Daily NK newspaper and said that most occurred close to the border with China.
A further 3,700 soldiers were under quarantine, they added.
The regime continues to deny that the virus has any presence within its borders.
In its report, Daily NK added that the wave of deaths had led to corpses being disinfected rather than cremated, in defiance of government orders.
“There’s just too many bodies,” their source said.
“The military leadership likely believes that suddenly asking the hospitals to cremate all the bodies would create a big headache for medical staff.”
The source added that army chiefs would “be held responsible for the deaths that have occurred in their units”.
Two party cadres, Ri Man Gon and Pak Thae Dok, have already been “harshly criticised” by Kim Jong-un after he revealed “abuse of power” and “corruption” among senior officials.
A party committee has also been dissolved and now faces a “relevant penalty”.
The regime is so concerned by the virus that it allegedly won’t even allow North Korean defectors captured in China to be repatriated so they can be punished.
Regime forces have also threatened to shoot Chinese citizens who come too close to the border, according to three sources.
Recent North Korean propaganda has heavily emphasised efforts to stop the virus, featuring images of officials in protective clothing disinfecting buses, barbershops, schools and other public places.
A leading US infectious diseases expert says North Korea’s dependence on China has made it difficult to stop the virus crossing the border, which was closed in January.