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North Korea claims disputed victory over virus, blames Seoul

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — In a vivid speech to thousands of North Koreans, leader Kim Jong Un’s sister said he suffered from a fever as he guided the country to victory over the coronavirus. . She blamed rival South Korea for the outbreak and vowed “deadly” retaliation.

Kim Yo Jong, a powerful inter-Korean relations official, glorified his brother’s leadership during the outbreak in his speech Wednesday at a national gathering where he jubilantly described the country’s widely disputed success over the virus as a “incredible miracle” in the world. public health.

North Korea’s statements about its outbreak are widely believed to have been manipulated to help Kim Jong Un maintain absolute authority. But experts believe the victory announcement signals his intention to move on to other priorities and fear his sister’s remarks could portend a provocation, which could include nuclear or missile tests or even skirmishes at the border.

North Korea’s official Central News Agency said Thursday that Kim Jong Un had declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered a relaxation of preventive measures just three months after the country first acknowledged an outbreak. .

In his first known televised speech, his sister said he was suffering from a fever and glorified his “epoch-making” leadership. In a dubious claim, she accused South Korea of ​​spreading COVID-19 to the largely unvaccinated North Korean population, saying the initial infections were caused by “leaflets, banknotes, awful booklets” and other items flown across the border by anti-North Korean activists in the south.

North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had come into contact with objects carried by balloons launched from South Korea – a dubious claim that appeared to be a attempt to blame his rival.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed deep regret over 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 during a briefing, said Seoul was preparing for various possible North Korean provocations, including a test detonation of a device nuclear.

Since North Korea acknowledged its coronavirus outbreak in May, it has reported around 4.8 million ‘cases of fever’ in its population of 26 million, but has only identified a fraction as COVID-19. The country, which is likely short of testing kits and other public health tools, said the outbreak had been slowing for weeks and only 74 people had died.

“Since we started carrying out the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), the daily fever cases which reached hundreds of thousands in the first days of the epidemic have been reduced to less than 90. 000 a month later and have been continuously decreasing, and not a single case of fever suspected to be related to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his speech Wednesday at a national meeting at the during which he announced a revised response to the pandemic.

“For a country that has yet to administer a single shot of vaccine, our success in overcoming the spread of the disease in such a short time and restoring public health security and making our country a clean and virus-free zone is an incredible miracle that would be recorded in world public health history,” KCNA quoted him as saying.

For Kim, declaring victory over the coronavirus suggests he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the country’s shattered and heavily sanctioned economy, which has been further damaged by the pandemic border closures, or carrying out a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley. , professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

South Korean and US officials have said North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear test in five years amid a torrid series of weapons tests this year that included its first intercontinental ballistic missile launches since 2017.

The provocative tests underscore Kim’s intention to advance his arsenal while pressuring the Biden administration over long-running negotiations in which he hopes to use his nukes as leverage for sanctions relief and concessions. much-needed security, experts say.

Kim Yo Jong’s belligerent rhetoric indicates that she will try to blame any resurgence of COVID-19 on South Korea and also seeks to justify North Korea’s upcoming military provocation, Easley said.

For years, activists in South Korea have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of the Kim regime. North Korea has often expressed its fury at the activists and at the South Korean government for not arresting them.

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

“The (South Korean) puppets are always pushing leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it with firmness,” she said. “We have already considered various counter-action plans, but our counter-measure must be lethal retaliation.”

North Korean state television showed people among the audience of thousands crying as she spoke about her brother’s fever – a reference that was not further explained. The crowd cheered and cheered as they pledged that North Korea will ‘eradicate not only the virus but also the (South Korean) government authorities’ if the ‘enemies continue to act in dangerous ways that could introduce the virus into our republic’ .

While Kim Yo Jong has made many speeches and statements in recent years as one of the most powerful members of his brother’s leadership circle, Thursday was the first time North Korean media released the video and the report. full audio of one of his speeches, the unification of South Korea. said the ministry. The spotlight on his speech by state media reflects his rising status and may be intended to highlight the threat directed at South Korea.

In 2020, Kim Yo Jong led a pressure campaign in which North Korea blew up an empty liaison office built by South Korea on its territory and threatened to end a 2018 military agreement on reducing border tensions, in a furious response to South Korean leafleting campaigns. In 2014, North Korea fired on propaganda balloons flying towards its territory and South Korea retaliated, although there were no casualties.

North Korea’s claim about the origin of the outbreak contradicts outside experts, who believe the omicron variant spread when the country briefly reopened its border with China to cargo traffic in January, and rose further 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 also stressed that his economic goals must be met, which meant that huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.

During the virus meeting, Kim called for the relaxation of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of novel coronavirus variants and monkeypox.