North Korea claims disputed victory over virus, blames Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a shocking speech to thousands of North Koreans, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un said she had a fever while guiding the country to defeat the coronavirus. She blamed rival South Korea for the outbreak and vowed “deadly” revenge.

Kim Yo Jong, a powerful official in charge of inter-Korean relations, praised her brother’s leadership during the outbreak in a speech to a national assembly on Wednesday where she described the country’s widely disputed success on the virus as an “amazing miracle” globally. public health.

Statements about the North Korean outbreak are believed to have been manipulated to help Kim Jong Un maintain absolute power. But experts believe Vijay’s declaration of victory signals his intention to move on to other priorities, provoked by his sister’s criticism, which could include nuclear or missile tests or even border skirmishes.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that Kim Jong Un declared victory over Covid-19 and ordered the easing of containment measures just three months after the country first acknowledged the outbreak.

In her first known televised speech, his sister said he had a fever and praised his “era-making” leadership. In a dubious claim, she accused South Korea of ​​spreading Covid-19 among North Korea’s largely unvaccinated population, saying the initial infections were caused by “leaflets, notes, horrific booklets” and other items flown across the border by anti-North Korean activists. South

North Korea first suggested in July that its Covid-19 outbreak began in people who came into contact with items carried by balloons released from South Korea – a questionable claim that it seeks to blame on its rival.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed deep regret for North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” based on “ridiculous claims”.

A senior official in South Korea’s presidential office, who spoke on condition of anonymity at a background briefing, said Seoul was preparing for a variety of possible North Korean provocations, including the test detonation of a nuclear device.

Since North Korea acknowledged its coronavirus outbreak in May, about 4.8 million “fever cases” have been reported among its population of 26 million but only a fraction of those have been identified as Covid-19. The country, which lacks testing kits and other public health tools, has claimed that the outbreak has been on the decline for weeks and that only 74 people have died.

“Since we started running a maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), the daily fever cases, which reached hundreds of thousands in the initial days of the outbreak, dropped to less than 90,000 a month later and have continued to decline, with not a single case. A fever suspected to be linked to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his address to a national assembly on Wednesday in which he announced an improved pandemic response.

“For a country that is yet to receive a single vaccine, our success in overcoming the spread of the disease in such a short period of time and restoring safety to public health and making our country a clean virus-free zone again is amazing. A miracle will be recorded in the history of the world of public health,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

Kim’s declaration of victory against the coronavirus suggests he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the country’s battered and heavily sanctioned economy, which has been further damaged by the pandemic’s border closures, or conducting nuclear tests, Leif-Eric Easley said. , Professor of International Studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul.

South Korea and US officials have said North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test in five years in a massive series of weapons tests this year, including the first launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017.

The provocative tests underscored Kim’s intent to expand his arsenal and put pressure on the Biden administration in long-stalled negotiations in which he hopes to use nuclear weapons as leverage for the sanctions relief and security concessions he needs, experts say.

Kim Yo Jong’s bellicose rhetoric suggests she will try to blame any Covid-19 resurgence on South Korea and is also looking to justify further North Korean military provocations, Easley said.

Activists in South Korea have distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets criticizing Kim’s regime and blown up balloons across the border. North Korea has often expressed anger at the activists and the South Korean government for not stopping them.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo Jong called the country’s virus outbreak a “hysterical farce” launched by South Korea to escalate the conflict.

“The (South Korean) puppets are still dropping leaflets and dirty things into our territory. We must deal with it sternly,” she said. “We have already considered various countermeasures, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”

North Korean state TV showed some of the thousands in the audience crying as she talked about her brother’s fever – a reference that was not further explained. The crowd cheered with applause as North Korea vowed to “destroy not only the virus but also the (South Korean) government officials” if the enemy continues its dangerous actions that could allow the virus to enter its republic.

While Kim Yo Jong has made many speeches and statements in recent years as one of the most powerful members of her brother’s leadership circle, Thursday was the first time North Korean media broadcast the entire video and audio of one of her speeches, on the unification of South Korea. Ministry said. The highlighting of her speech by state media reflects her rising status and may be aimed at emphasizing the threat directed at South Korea.

In 2020, Kim Yo Jong conducted a pressure campaign in which North Korea blew up an empty liaison office built by South Korea within its territory and threatened to end a 2018 military agreement to reduce border tensions, responding sharply to South Korean propaganda campaigns. In 2014, North Korea shot down propaganda balloons flying toward its territory, and South Korea returned fire, though no casualties were reported.

North Korea’s claim about the origin of the outbreak contrasts with outside experts, who believe the Omicron strain spread when the country briefly reopened its border with China to cargo in January and escalated after a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang, its capital, in April.

In May, Kim Jong Un banned travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he insisted he must meet his economic goals, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

At the virus meeting, Kim cited the global spread of the new coronavirus strain and monkeypox as he called for easing preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls.

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