North Korea claims to have defeated COVID. Experts wonder what’s really going on

By Matt Field | August 11, 2022

Kim Jong-unNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un wearing a mask during a COVID outbreak in his country. Credit: KCTV (North Korean state-owned media).

In a day that mixed celebration with incendiary accusations, North Korea’s top officials said the country’s COVID outbreak had ended. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un declared victory over a virus that may have infected some 4.7 million North Koreans in the past few months. His sister, meanwhile, a top government spokesperson, claimed her brother had suffered a “fever” this spring. She threatened to eradicate South Korean authorities for supposedly allowing COVID tainted materials to cross the border .

After making the dubious claim that North Korea had no COVID cases in the first years of the pandemic—the government this spring finally acknowledged an outbreak, reporting a peak daily case load of more than 390,000 in mid-May, according to 38 North, a project of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. State media has reported no new cases since July 29, and on Wednesday, Kim called for easing the country’s ani-virus measures at a triumphant event.

Kim attributed the country’s supposed success against COVID to an “all-for-one and one-for-all collectivist spirit,” according to NK News, a Seoul based outlet, saying that officials, health workers, an ordinary people had obeyed rules during the country’s emergency response. Despite Kim’s claims, experts continue to question most of North Korea’s COVID claims.

The omicron variant circulating around the world has proved a wily virus capable of evading even the intensive control tactics of China, where authorities have continued to lock down millions of people in an effort to quash the spread of COVID. Because of North Korea’s isolation and known lack of testing capabilities, health experts are dubious that the country has truly vanquished the virus.

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Shin Young-jeon, a medical expert at Seoul’s Hanyang University, told The Washington Post that although North Korea’s border closures and other restrictions could have brought down the peak of the omicron wave, the reported death toll of 74 was “nonsensical.”

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, used the Wednesday event to issue bellicose threats against the South. North Korean officials have blamed South Korea for sending the virus over the 38th Parallel on balloons carrying propaganda leaflets, a controversial practice among some North Korean human rights activists in the South. Kim Yo-jong threatened a brutal response to the allegations.

“If the enemies continue to do dangerous shit that could introduce the virus into our country, we’ll respond of course by not only eradicating the virus but also exterminating the [s]outh Korean authority bastards,”  NK News reported, citing North Korean state media.

The South Korean government vehemently rejected the accusations that it sparked North Korea’s outbreak, calling them “very rude,” according to The New York Times.

Some observers speculated that other factors were driving North Korea’s optimistic announcement on COVID. After last testing a nuclear weapon in 2009, when Kim’s father Kim Jong-il was in charge, many believe the country is preparing for a seventh test.

Professor Leif-Eric Easley, of Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, told The Guardian that Kim’s declaration “means that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the economy or conducting a nuclear test.”

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Keywords: COVID-19, North Korea
Topics: Biosecurity

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