SEOUL — North Korea, which has one of the poorest health-care infrastructures in the world, now claims it has done what few other countries have accomplished: eradicate the coronavirus.
For days, state propaganda outlets reported zero cases of “fever,” which North Korea, with its limited testing capacity, apparently uses as a euphemism for potential covid-19. On Wednesday, leader Kim Jong Un gave a speech in which he “solemnly declared a victory” over the virus, state media said Thursday.
But there are plenty of holes in North Korea’s miraculous comeback story. For one, it lacks the capacity to do widespread PCR testing. North Korea and Eritrea are the only two countries without a coronavirus vaccine program. And North Korea’s hospitals are also so poorly equipped that there is barely reliable electricity.
That has not stopped North Korea from heralding success. Kim is credited with eradicating the virus despite falling “seriously ill with high fever” himself — though state media did not specify whether the fever was from coronavirus infection.
“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,” his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, said during a recent speech commending his leadership.
Since May, North Korea has reported more than 4.7 million cases of “fever” symptoms, afflicting nearly a fifth of its population of 25 million. At its peak, it reported more than 750,000 fever cases in one day. It now claims just 74 fever patients — or about 0.002 percent — have died, which would make North Korea’s fatality rate the lowest in the world.
Experts warn that these numbers cannot be independently verified, especially given the exodus of international aid workers from the country, which sealed its already-tight borders during the pandemic. Many people infected by the coronavirus do not show symptoms of fever, further raising questions about its data.
Still, because the country sealed its borders and further restricted movement of its population during its covid response, it is feasible that the peak of its fever cases is over, said Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Hanyang University in Seoul.
But “North Korea’s coronavirus fatality figure of 74 is nonsensically low,” he said, adding that the death count is likely to be underrepresented in official figures given Pyongyang’s lack of diagnostic capacity.
Declaring victory over covid is a useful propaganda tool for a regime that is struggling with an intensifying economic crisis, amid self-imposed restrictions on moving goods and people across the border with China, the North’s largest trading partner. Claiming that Kim also had similar symptoms could be a way to message solidarity with his people, some experts say.
North Korea needs to show its dominance over covid after the virus hit Pyongyang, where the country’s elite live, experts say. The announcement of victory may also pave the way for further missile tests, after messaging to the elites that Kim has successfully handled its domestic crisis.
“The virus outbreak that came on top of an ongoing economic crisis posed a critical challenge to the Kim Jong Un regime, which prompted Kim Jong Un to act on it himself,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
Park said the Kim regime made an “all-out effort” to curb the virus which appears to have been effective, though the “zero case” claim is still hard to believe. North Korea could shortly resume military provocations that it has refrained from while dealing with the virus outbreak, he said.
North Korea has also used the virus to attack South Korea, which it blames for its health crisis. Last month, state media blamed “alien things” from the South for bringing the virus across the border, warning of items such as balloons carrying propaganda leaflets released by anti-Pyongyang activists. Experts question this claim, and believe the virus probably entered North Korea through trade activities along the country’s border with China, when restrictions were briefly loosened in the first quarter of 2022.
At a virus meeting on Wednesday, Kim Yo Jong threatened retaliation against South Koreans for spreading the virus to the North.
“If the enemy persists in such dangerous deeds as fomenting the inroads of virus into our Republic, we will respond to it by not only exterminating the virus but also wiping out the South Korean authorities,” she said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.