Kim Jong Un was 'seriously ill' during N. Korea's Covid-19 surge; sister blames Seoul

North Korea's declaration of victory comes despite rolling out no known vaccine programme. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was "seriously ill with a high fever" during a recent Covid-19 outbreak that hit his reclusive nation, but he has since recovered and is now declaring victory over the coronavirus, state media reported on Thursday (Aug 11).

His sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong, blamed leaflets from South Korea for the outbreak, as she threatened a "deadly" retaliation.

She blamed “South Korean puppets” for sending “dirty objects” across the border in leaflets carried by balloons, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

“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.

Unusual admission

Her revelation of her brother’s illness marked an unusual admission for a regime that rarely comments on Mr Kim's health. Typically, it is done for political purposes to show  he has been affected by the same struggles facing North Koreans.

Ms Kim did not elaborate on whether her brother was among what 
North Korea calls “fever cases”, or specified a date of his illness.

Overweight and a smoker, Mr Kim's health has prompted speculations for years. His public appearances are closely tracked for insights about his autocratic and secretive regime in Pyongyang, especially since his family has a history of heart disease.

North Korea has not called the hundreds of thousands of "fever cases" Covid-19.

But Mr Kim was reported on Thursday as declaring victory in its battle against the coronavirus, ordering a lifting of maximum anti-epidemic measures imposed in May,

North Korea has not revealed how many confirmed infections of the virus it has found, but since July 29 it has reported no new suspected cases with what international aid organisations say are limited testing capabilities.

While lifting the maximum anti-pandemic measures, Mr Kim said North Korea must maintain a “steel-strong anti-epidemic barrier and intensifying the anti-epidemic work until the end of the global health crisis".

'We will eradicate not just the virus'

Ms Kim's remarks included her first threat against the new government of President Yoon Suk-yeol

Defectors and activists in the South has, for decades, been sending balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets to the North, alongside food, medicine, money and other items.

“If the enemy continues to do such a dangerous thing that can introduce virus into our republic, we will respond by eradicating not only the virus but also the South Korean authorities,” she said in a speech at a meeting of ruling party officials reviewing policies to battle the pandemic.

“We can no longer overlook the uninterrupted influx of rubbish from South Korea,” she said. “Our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”

North Korea’s escalating rhetoric against Seoul could set the stage for a resumption of military provocations that have slowed in recent months, possibility due to the outbreak. 

North Korea appears to be readying conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, government officials from Japan, South Korea and the US said.

Any display of the weapons in Mr Kim’s nuclear arsenal would serve as a reminder of the pressing security problems posed by Pyongyang that have simmered as US President Joe Biden’s administration has been focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

'Rude, unsubstantiated'

South Korea’s Unification Ministry expressed “strong regrets” over Kim Yo Jong’s statement, calling her claims “rude” and “unsubstantiated”. 

“We express strong regrets over North Korea repeatedly making groundless claims over the route of Covid and making very disrespectful and threatening remarks,” the ministry said in a statement.

North Korea – one of only two United Nations member states that has not launched a vaccination programme – has apparently been trying to deflect blame away from its leader over an outbreak that was too big to ignore.

By claiming victory, it may be “paving its way to resume its trade with China”, said Dr Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who has advised the South Korean government.

North Korea’s official death rate of 0.0016 per cent, or 74 out of some 4.77 million, is an “unprecedented miracle,” anti-Covid chief Ri Chung Gil told the meeting.

Instead of confirmed cases, North Korea reported the number of people with fever symptoms. Those daily cases peaked at more than 392,920 on May 15, prompting health experts to warn of an inevitable crisis.

The World Health Organisation has cast doubts on North Korea’s claims, saying last month it believed the situation was getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data.

“Whatever the truth behind the numbers, this is the story being told to the North Korean citizens. And right now the numbers are telling them that the epidemic is over,” said Mr Martyn Williams, a researcher with the US-based 38 North Project, who has been tracking North Korean case reports.

Like other countries, North Korea is likely balancing the need for control – whether for political or medical reasons – with public fatigue over restrictions, he said.

“As of Wednesday evening, state TV was still showing 100 per cent mask wearing in public activities but the longer cases remain at zero, I think the greater the public will question the continued limitations on their lives,” Mr Williams said.

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