North Korea claims victory over virus, blames Seoul for outbreak

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered a relaxation of preventive measures, calling the officially reported death toll of just 74 people an unprecedented miracle in the history of global health, state media reported on Thursday.

Kim’s powerful sister also spoke at the virus meeting in the capital, Pyongyang, on Wednesday and blamed the country’s infections on anti-Pyongyang leaflets airlifted by rival South Korea and put warns against a counter-action which would be a “deadly retaliation”.

After maintaining a widely disputed claim of being coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea on May 12 admitted to an outbreak of COVID-19, saying an unknown number of people in Pyongyang had been diagnosed with the virus. omicron variant.

North Korea has since reported around 4.8 million “fever cases” among its population of 26 million, but identified only a fraction of them as COVID-19. It says 74 people have died, an extremely low death rate that experts have widely questioned in part because almost no one in North Korea is vaccinated against the coronavirus.

North Korean health officials have been claiming a slowdown in the outbreak for weeks, not reporting any suspected cases since late July, a rapid decline that experts have also cast doubt on.

Some experts say North Korea likely manipulated the scale of illnesses and deaths to help Kim maintain his absolute leadership amid growing economic hardship in the isolated nation.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Thursday that Kim “solemnly declared victory in the anti-epidemic campaign of maximum urgency” and ordered a return to normal level preventive measures.

He called on the nation to maintain vigilance and effective controls in border areas, citing the global spread of new variants of COVID-19 and monkeypox.

After the country’s first admission of the outbreak in May, Kim imposed strict travel bans between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals must be met, which meant that huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak started in people who had come into contact with balloons from South Korea – a questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its own. responsible rival amid growing tensions over the North’s nuclear program.

For years, activists have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has often expressed its fury at activists and at South Korean leaders for not not have stopped them.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysterical farce” launched by South Korea to escalate the confrontation.

“The (South Korean) puppets are always pushing leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it with firmness,” she said. “We have already considered various counter-action plans, but our counter-measure must be lethal retaliation.”

Such claims contradict outside views that the coronavirus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to cargo traffic in January and increased further after a military parade and other events in large scale in Pyongyang in April.

Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long standoff in US-led diplomacy to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.

South Korean and US officials have said North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid series of weapons tests this year, which included its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.

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