North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a “shining victory” over Covid-19 as his sister revealed he had fallen ill during the outbreak, which she blamed on Seoul, state media said Thursday.
Addressing a meeting of health workers and scientists, Kim announced a “victory… in the war against the malignant pandemic disease”, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim fell ill with a “high fever” but refused to rest while the country battled the virus, his powerful sister Kim Yo Jong told the meeting as officials in the audience wept, a KCTV broadcast showed.
The isolated nation, which has maintained a rigid blockade since the start of the pandemic, confirmed an Omicron outbreak in the capital Pyongyang in May and activated a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system”.
North Korea refers to “fever patients” rather than “Covid patients” in case reports, apparently due to a lack of testing capacity.
It has recorded nearly 4.8 million “fever” infections and just 74 deaths for an official fatality rate of 0.002 percent, according to state media. It has reported no new cases since July 29.
This handling of the pandemic “is a miracle unprecedented in the world’s public health history,” Kim said to thunderous applause, according to KCNA.
“The victory gained by our people is a historic event.”
– Kim’s ‘high fever’ –
KCTV had never before aired a speech by “first sister” Kim Yo Jong, who made an impassioned address, the broadcast showed.
Kim Jong Un “was suffering from high fever during the days of this anti-epidemic war, but he could not lie down for a moment as he was thinking about the people he was responsible for”, his sister said.
This is the first time North Korea has indicated its leader — whose health is the subject of extraordinarily close scrutiny by analysts — had been infected by the coronavirus.
As Kim Yo Jong talked about her brother’s health, the camera cut to uniformed officials in the audience wiping away tears or openly weeping.
She also claimed the country’s Covid outbreak was caused by South Korea, warning of “retaliation”.
North Korea has previously said that “alien things” near the border with the South caused the isolated country’s Covid outbreak, a claim Seoul has rejected.
Despite a ban that took effect in 2021, South Korean activists have for years flown balloons containing propaganda leaflets and US dollars over the border, which Pyongyang has long protested against.
Kim Yo Jong said such actions were a “crime against humanity” and that Pyongyang was considering “a strong retaliatory response”.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Thursday said North Korea was repeating a “groundless claim” and expressed regret that Pyongyang was making “rude and threatening remarks”.
– Nuclear test? –
Analysts said that the victory declaration indicated North Korea was looking to move on to other priorities “such as boosting the economy or conducting a nuclear test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose rhetoric is concerning 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,” he added.
Experts, including the World Health Organization, have long questioned Pyongyang’s Covid statistics and claims to have brought the outbreak under control.
The country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with poorly equipped hospitals, few intensive care units and no Covid treatment drugs, experts say.
It is not believed to have vaccinated any of its 25 million population, although it may have received some vaccines from China, Seoul-based specialist site NK News has reported.
South Korea — with its advanced healthcare and highly vaccinated population — has a coronavirus fatality rate of 0.12 percent, according to official data — significantly higher than that reported in the North.