N Korea declares 'victory' over Covid

N Korea declares 'victory' over Covid

Sister says Kim Jong Un was 'seriously ill' from virus that she continues to blame on South Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was seriously ill with a
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was seriously ill with a "fever" during the country's coronavirus outbreak, his sister has said. (AFP File Photo)

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a “shining victory” over Covid-19 as his sister revealed he had fallen ill during the outbreak, which she blamed on Seoul.

Addressing a meeting of health workers and scientists, Kim announced a “victory … in the war against the malignant pandemic disease”, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The isolated country, which has maintained a rigid coronavirus blockade since the start of the pandemic, confirmed an Omicron outbreak in Pyongyang in May and activated a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system”.

North Korea refers to “fever patients” rather than “Covid patients” in case reports, apparently due to a lack of testing capacity.

It has recorded nearly 4.8 million “fever” infections and just 74 deaths for an official fatality rate of 0.002%, according to state media. It has reported no new cases since July 29.

This handling of the pandemic “is a miracle unprecedented in the world’s public health history”, Kim said to thunderous applause, according to KCNA.

“The victory gained by our people is a historic event.”

Kim’s ‘high fever’

Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, said the top leader himself had been ill during the outbreak, according to another KCNA report.

Kim “was suffering from high fever during the days of this quarantine war, but he could not lie down for a moment as he was thinking about the people he was responsible for”, the agency quoted her as saying.

Overweight and a smoker, Kim Jong Un’s health has prompted speculation for years. His public appearances are closely tracked for insights about the autocratic and secretive regime, especially since his family has a history of heart disease.

Kim Yo Jong delivered a carefully calibrated message to underscore that her brother has suffered, like the country’s citizens, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.

“It's consistent with North Korea’s leadership propaganda strategy in recent years that shifted from deifying the leader to portraying the leader as a regular human being who is constantly with the people and shares his life’s joys and sorrows with the people,” said Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades.

Kim Jong Un went about 17 days without an appearance in state media last month, although the North Korean leader often drops out of view in summer to spend time at his seaside mansion and megayacht. He attended a ruling party meeting Wednesday in which he claimed “victory” in the “great quarantine war.”

Kim Yo Jong also claimed the country’s Covid outbreak was caused by South Korea, warning of “retaliation”.

North Korea has previously said that local people coming into contact with “alien things” near the border with the South caused the outbreak, a claim Seoul has rejected.

Dspite a ban that took effect in 2021, South Korean activists have for years flown balloons containing propaganda leaflets and US dollars over the border, which Pyongyang has long protested against.

Kim Yo Jong said such actions were a “crime against humanity” and that Pyongyang was considering “a strong retaliatory response”.

In Seoul, the Unification Ministry said on Thursday that North Korea was repeating a “groundless claim” and expressed regret that Pyongyang was making “rude and threatening remarks”.

Nuclear test?

Analysts said that the victory declaration indicated North Korea was looking to move on to other priorities “such as boosting the economy or conducting a nuclear test”, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose rhetoric is concerning because not only will she try to blame any Covid resurgence on South Korea, she is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation,” he added.

Experts, including the World Health Organization, have long questioned Pyongyang’s Covid statistics and claims to have brought the outbreak under control.

The country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units and no Covid-19 treatment drugs or vaccines, experts say.

South Korea — with its advanced healthcare and highly vaccinated population — has a coronavirus fatality rate of 0.12%, according to official data — significantly higher than that reported in the North.

There are plenty of places where the virus could have entered North Korea. While airports have largely been shut during the pandemic, the regime reopened a rail link with China in January and black-market traders frequently cross the border. A United Nations body has said there’s sea traffic at its international port of Nampho, and illicit trade is conducted on the open seas in violation of sanctions.

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