SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered an easing of precautionary measures, saying North Korea’s official reported death toll was just 74, a miracle unprecedented in the history of world health, state media reported Thursday. express.
Kim’s powerful sister also spoke at a virus conference in the capital Pyongyang on Wednesday, blaming the country’s infections on anti-Pyongyang flyers from rival South Korea, warning it would be “deadly retaliation”.
North Korea acknowledged on May 12 that it had a COVID-19 outbreak after more than two years of contentiously claiming there was no coronavirus, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang had been diagnosed with the omicron variant.
North Korea has since reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million, but identified only a fraction of them as COVID-19. It said 74 people had died, an extremely low death rate widely questioned by experts, in part because almost no one in North Korea has been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
For weeks, North Korean health officials have claimed the outbreak is slowing, with no suspected cases reported since late July, and experts have questioned the rapid decline.
Some experts say North Korea may have manipulated the scale of illness and death to help Kim maintain absolute leadership amid the isolated country’s growing economic troubles.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said on Thursday that Kim Jong-un “solemnly announced the victory of the largest emergency response to the epidemic” and instructed to take precautionary measures to return to normal levels.
He called on the country to maintain vigilance and effective control in border areas, citing the global spread of new COVID-19 variants and monkeypox.
After the country first acknowledged the outbreak in May, Kim strictly banned travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be met, which means large groups continue to congregate in agriculture, industry and construction sites.
North Korea first said in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began with people coming into contact with balloons flying in from South Korea — a claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival accountable amid growing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Activists have been flying over the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim Jong Un for years, and North Korea has often expressed anger at activists and South Korean leaders for not stopping them.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s sister, repeated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysterical farce” by South Korea to escalate confrontation.
“The (South Korean) puppets are still throwing leaflets and filth into our territory. We have to deal with it resolutely,” she said. “We have considered various countermeasures, but our countermeasures must be lethal retaliatory measures.”
That claim contradicts perceptions that the coronavirus surged further after a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April, after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China for freight shipments in January.
Relations between the two Koreas remain strained amid a prolonged stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy over persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic and political gains.
North Korea may be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years, South Korean and U.S. officials said, following an intense run of weapons tests this year, including the first demonstration of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017.