North Korea reported a slight jump in suspected COVID-19 cases on Monday amid media reports that movement restrictions imposed in the capital, Pyongyang, may have been lifted.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said 100,710 people showed symptoms of fever in the 24-hour period that ended at 6pm on Sunday.
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The tally is the first time that North Korea’s suspected COVID-19 infections bounced back above 100,000 in three days and brings the total number of cases reported since late April to more than 3.55 million.
The country had reported 89,500 fever cases over the previous 24-hour period.
The official death toll remains at 70.
North Korea is grappling with an unprecedented COVID-19 wave since declaring a state of emergency and imposing a nationwide lockdown this month, heightening concerns about a lack of vaccines, medical supplies and food shortages.
Since the May 12 admission of an Omicron outbreak, the country has only been announcing the number of patients with feverish symptoms daily, but not those with COVID-19, apparently because of a shortage of test kits to confirm coronavirus cases in large numbers.
The daily fever tally peaked at more than 392,000 on May 15 and has been on a downward trend since.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing an unnamed source in Beijing, said movement restrictions were lifted in the North Korean capital on Sunday, while South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the lockdowns had been “partially eased”.
But a spokesperson for South Korea’s unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said it could not confirm the report, as the North’s state media had not announced the decision.
The reports of easing of curbs came shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a politburo meeting to discuss revising anti-epidemic restrictions.
He assessed that the situation over the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak was “improving”, according to the KCNA.
“The Political Bureau examined the issue of effectively and quickly coordinating and enforcing the anti-epidemic regulations and guidelines given the current stable anti-epidemic situation,” it added.
Many outside experts say North Korea is understating its death rate to prevent any political damage to Kim at home.
They say North Korea should have suffered many more deaths because its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated against COVID-19 and it lacks the capacity to treat patients with critical conditions. Others suspect North Korea might have exaggerated its earlier fever cases to try to strengthen its internal control of its population.
Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the Associated Press news agency that the North’s recently elevated restrictions must be dealing a serious blow to its coal, agricultural and other labour-intensive industrial sectors.
But he said those difficulties will not likely rise to a level that threatens Kim’s grip on power, as the COVID-19 outbreak and strengthened curbs have given him a chance to boost his control over the population.