North Korea Declares Victory Over Covid, Hints Kim Jong Un Was Infected

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State media didn’t explicitly say that Mr. Kim, the 38-year-old dictator, had contracted the virus. But the North Korean leader had recently fallen “seriously ill with a high fever,” according to remarks made by his sister,

Kim Yo Jong,

at a Wednesday meeting attended by top officials.

“He did not lie down for a moment, thinking of the people he had to take care of,” said Ms. Kim, as quoted in state media.

North Korea first disclosed the outbreak in May. Due to a lack of Covid-19 test kits, the impoverished country had tracked daily infections by tallying the number of fever cases. Some 4.77 million had gotten a fever, of which 74 died. No new cases have been reported since July 29.

It is unclear when Mr. Kim may have gotten sick. He was out of the public eye for roughly two weeks in June, and then around three weeks in July. Pyongyang had previously given no indication that Mr. Kim may have been potentially infected.

Kim Jong Un praised North Korea for exterminating Covid-19 without vaccines.



Photo:

Cha Song Ho/Associated Press

 

At the Wednesday meeting, Mr. Kim, wearing a black Mao suit, appeared vibrant in photos published by state media. Calling it the “greatest miracle” in global health, Mr. Kim praised the country for exterminating the virus without vaccines and accepting maximum-level restrictions for three straight months.

“The long-suffered quarantine war is finally over and today we are able to solemnly declare victory,” Mr. Kim said.

It is plausible that Mr. Kim contracted Covid, given how he had appeared maskless at several events during the country’s outbreak, said Hong Min, of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think tank. But even if Mr. Kim had avoided the virus, Mr. Hong said, there would be compelling reasons to say that he had been infected.

“Claiming he led the country out of the outbreak despite experiencing fever symptoms portrays Kim as a hardworking leader putting the people before himself,” said Mr. Hong, director at the institute’s North Korea research division.

North Koreans were seen crying during the national meeting as the leader’s sister said Mr. Kim had suffered a fever, state media footage showed. Hundreds of maskless attendees cheered after the speech.

North Korea’s leader said the lockdowns imposed since May hadn’t affected state economic plans.



Photo:

kim won jin/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Kim’s triumphing over Covid provides a celebratory message domestically, and sends a critical message to China on cross-border trade, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Earlier this year, the two countries reopened a rail route that had been largely sealed off throughout the pandemic, but it was closed again after North Korea began to report Covid cases.

“Declaring the country virus-free signals Kim wants to shift focus to boosting the economy,” Mr. Yang said.

North Korea’s economy shrank by 0.1% in 2021, hampered by pandemic restrictions and sanctions, according to a recent estimate by South Korea’s central bank. The estimate is closely watched and relies on data gathered by other South Korean government departments, including Seoul’s spy agency.

At the Wednesday meeting, Mr. Kim claimed the lockdowns imposed since May hadn’t affected state economic plans. All travel between regions had been blocked, with exceptions made for agricultural or construction work. But now, the maximum anti-epidemic measures would be relaxed and returned to normal levels, Mr. Kim said. He also ordered North Korea to maintain border controls and strengthen quarantine measures to prevent new variants from spreading.

Kim Jong Un ordered North Korea to maintain border controls and strengthen quarantine measures to prevent new variants from spreading.



Photo:

KCNA/via REUTERS

The Kim regime has blamed South Korea for its Covid-19 outbreak, claiming that it began after two North Koreans touched “alien things” that had been sent over the border from South Korea, according to a state media report.

It was a swipe against a common Kim regime irritant: antiregime leaflets floated over the border by groups led by North Korean defectors based in the South.

At the Wednesday meeting, Kim Yo Jong, who serves as the regime’s mouthpiece, repeated the “alien things” claim and chastised South Korea for attempting to “take advantage of the world health crisis and crush our country.” Ms. Kim also warned of “exterminating” South Korean authorities for introducing the virus into North Korea.

After Ms. Kim’s remarks were published, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification expressed regret at North Korea’s threatening comments.

 

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