SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has declared victory over its first acknowledged outbreak of the coronavirus, state media reported Thursday, as leader Kim Jong Un’s sister indicated that he may have been among those infected.
During a national meeting to review the country’s anti-epidemic measures, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, a top official in the ruling Workers’ Party, said he had experienced “fever symptoms” during the three-month outbreak. North Korea lacks the resources to test widely for the virus, mostly reporting “fever cases” rather than confirmed infections.
“He must be responsible to the end of the world and so cannot stay in bed even when he was suffering from the high and scary fever,” state news agency KCNA quoted her as saying.
Severe anti-epidemic measures imposed in response to the outbreak have been lifted, the agency said.
Kim blamed neighboring South Korea for the outbreak in the North, repeating earlier accusations that the virus had entered the country via propaganda leaflets and other “dirty objects.” “We can no longer overlook the uninterrupted influx of rubbish” from South Korea, she was quoted as saying, threatening “deadly” retaliatory measures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities say the virus is unlikely to be transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects.
In a text message to NBC News, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was “deeply regrettable that North Korea is repeating their outrageous claim regarding how the Covid-19 virus has been introduced into North Korea.”
Experts say declaring victory over the virus could free up the North Korean government to focus on other pressing issues like reported food shortages and the resumption of trade with neighboring China, its biggest trading partner, after keeping its borders tightly shut for most of the pandemic.
“It mainly signals that the North Korean leadership wants to move on from this,” said Dominique Fraser, a research associate at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Sydney, Australia, referring to the virus outbreak.
“It’s a signal to the domestic audience but also the international audience that North Korea has now moved on. They’ve defeated it, and they’ve moved on, and they’re stronger than ever, that’s what they’d say.”
The announcement also comes as North Korea is expected to conduct its seventh nuclear weapons test, which would be its first since 2017.
For two and a half years, North Korea claimed to have recorded zero virus cases. That changed in mid-May, when Kim Jong Un said an outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron variant was spreading “explosively” through its population of 26 million.
Officially, North Korea has reported 4.7 million people with fever symptoms, or 18.5 percent of the population, and 74 deaths, according to the tracking website 38north.org. The country’s daily reported cases peaked at 754,810 on May 19 before starting to peter out in early June.
Outside experts have cast doubt on North Korea’s numbers, with the World Health Organization saying in June that the outbreak was most likely “getting worse, not better.” It is one of the only countries in the world with no known vaccination program, having refused multiple offers of assistance from abroad.