Just three months after acknowledging an outbreak, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures to be eased, claiming the country’s widely disputed success would be recognized as a global health miracle.
According to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, Kim’s sister said her brother had a fever and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets flown across the border from South Korea, while threatening lethal retaliation.
Some experts believe North Korea manipulated the scale of the outbreak in order to keep Kim in absolute control of the country despite mounting economic difficulties. They believe Kim’s victory speech signals his intention to shift his focus to other matters, but they are concerned about his sister’s remarks.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing deep regret over North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” about the source of its infections.
Since admitting to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, North Korea has reported approximately 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million, but only a fraction of them have been identified as COVID-19. It claims that the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and that only 74 people have died.
South Korean and US officials have speculated that North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test in five years, following a flurry of weapons tests this year, including the first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
According to experts, the provocative testing activity underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal while also putting pressure on the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for much-needed sanctions relief and security concessions.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that the South Korean military was prepared for “various possibilities” of North Korean provocations.
Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose rhetoric is concerning because it suggests she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on the South and is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation, according to Easley.
North Korea first claimed in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by South Korean balloons, a dubious and unscientific claim that appeared to be an attempt to blame its rival.
For years, activists have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has frequently expressed rage at the activists and South Korea’s leadership for failing to stop them.
During the meeting on Wednesday, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysteric farce” orchestrated by South Korea in order to escalate tensions. She claimed that her brother had fever symptoms and thanked him for his “energetic and meticulous guidance” in bringing about a “epoch-making miracle” in the fight against COVID-19.
North Korean state television showed some of the thousands in the audience crying as she spoke about her brother’s alleged fever. The crowd applauded and cheered as she declared that if the “enemies continue dangerous acts that could introduce the virus into our republic,” the North would “eradicate not only the virus but also (South Korean) government authorities.”
The coronavirus is spread by people in close contact inhaling airborne droplets, and experts agree that spreading the virus from surfaces is nearly impossible. North Korea’s outbreak was thought to have spread when the country briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic in January, and it was believed to have spread further in April following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang.
To slow the spread of the virus, Kim banned travel between cities and counties in May. However, he also stated that his economic objectives must be met, which meant that large crowds continued to gather at agricultural, industrial, and construction sites.
Kim, speaking at the virus meeting, urged the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.