North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared “victory” in his country’s battle against COVID-19 and ordered pandemic restrictions, imposed in May, to be lifted.
Presiding over a meeting with health workers and scientists, Kim announced a “victory … in the war against the malignant pandemic disease,” state news agency KCNA reported on Thursday.
His powerful sister Kim Yo Jong also spoke at the Pyongyang meeting, blaming the outbreak on anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown across the border by activists from South Korea.
“We must counter it toughly,” she said. “We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
The isolated country, which has mostly kept its borders closed since the start of the pandemic in 2020, revealed in May that it was battling an outbreak of the Omicron variant and imposed a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system”.
It has reported no new cases of the virus since July 29.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the victory declaration was a signal that Kim Jong Un “wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the economy or conducting a nuclear test”. North Korea last tested a nuclear weapon in 2017.
Easley added that Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose rhetoric was a concern “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”.
Most analysts suspect the coronavirus made its way into North Korea after it briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic in January, and surged following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
It has since reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” out of a population of 26 million. Only a fraction were identified as COVID-19 because of a lack of testing kits.
The official death toll stands at 74 with a senior official calling it an “unprecedented miracle” in world health, according to KCNA.
The World Health Organisation has cast doubt on North Korea’s claims given the lack of independent data, the lack of any known vaccine programme and the poor state of its health system.
South Korea’s unification ministry, which handles relations with the North, expressed regret at Pyongyang’s repetition of “groundless claims” on the cause of the outbreak there, and Kim Yong Jo’s “rude and threatening remarks”.
Some experts say North Korea has manipulated the scale of illness and deaths to help Kim Jong Un maintain his absolute leadership amid mounting economic difficulties resulting from the prolonged border closure.
Kim Yo Jong said the North Korean leader himself had suffered from fever symptoms.
“Even though he was seriously ill with a high fever, he could not lie down for a moment thinking about the people he had to take care of until the end in the face of the anti-epidemic war,” she said in praise of her brother’s response to the outbreak.
Asked about Kim’s health, South Korea said it was not able to confirm anything.