Kim Jong-un fell ‘seriously ill’ during North Korea Covid crisis, his sister says
Kim Yo-jong says regime leader had a ‘high fever’, a byword for coronavirus in the country, as it claims victory over the virus
Speaking at a meeting of health workers and scientists in Pyongyang, Kim called for preventive measures to be eased and described the official death toll of 74 as an “unprecedented miracle in the history of the world health community”, state-run media said on Thursday.
Kim said “the victory gained by our people is a historic event that once again showed the world the greatness of our state, the indomitable tenacity of our people and the beautiful national customs we are proud of”, state news agency KCNA said in its report of Wednesday’s meeting.
His influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, blamed the country’s outbreak on propaganda leaflets flown over the border in balloons from South Korea, and warned of “deadly” retaliation if Seoul failed to prevent activists from sending the leaflets.
She also suggested that her brother had contracted the virus, saying that he had been among the tens of millions of North Koreans to have come down with a “fever”.
“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.
North Korea, whose poor health infrastructure was badly prepared to cope with a major outbreak, insisted that it had not recorded a single case of Covid-19 for the first two years of the pandemic.
Since May this year, it has reported about 4.8m cases of “fever” among its population of 26 million but identified only a fraction of them as Covid, possibly to avoid creating public alarm and because of a lack of testing kits.
Experts have cast doubt on North Korea’s low death toll and official reports of zero new cases since 29 July. The country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems, with ill-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no Covid-19 treatment drugs or vaccines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said last month it believed the situation was getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data. There has been no response from the WHO to the regime’s claims that it has eradicated the virus.
North Korea has rejected international offers to provide vaccines, although it is not clear if Kim and other senior figures in the ruling party have been vaccinated.
In a speech reportedly laden with profanities, Kim Yo-jong repeated unfounded claims that the virus had entered the country via objects sent from South Korea, claiming the outbreak was a “hysteric farce” started by the South in an attempt to raise cross-border tensions.
“[South Korean] puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must be tough in countering it,” she said.
Activists and defector groups in the South have for years flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of leaflets critical of Kim Jong-un.
Experts have offered a more credible explanation for the outbreak – that the virus entered North Korea after it briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic in January and spread after a military parade and other large gatherings in April.
Other North Korean officials were unusually candid about the toll the pandemic had taken, with one report citing a senior Pyongyang official as saying there had been incidents of public disorder shortly after the outbreak was confirmed in mid-May, with petrified people escaping isolation and “stampeding” at pharmacies amid medicine shortages.
Experts believe the virus has prevented Kim from focusing on the country’s weak economy and nuclear programme, and speculated that the regime could become more provocative now that it has declared an end to the pandemic.
“For Kim Jong-un to declare victory against Covid means that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the economy or conducting a nuclear test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Kim Yo-jong’s bellicose rhetoric is concerning because not only will she try to blame any Covid resurgence on South Korea, she is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation.”