North Korea Says Its Covid Outbreak Is Over

SEOUL — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said the country had brought its coronavirus outbreak to an end without vaccines, state media reported on Thursday, while Mr. Kim’s sister accused South Korea of sending the virus across the border and threatened​ “deadly”​ retaliation​.

After two years of claiming to have no Covid-19 cases, North Korea reported an outbreak in May, announcing a “maximum emergency” and locking down all of its cities and counties. On Wednesday, Mr. Kim ​“solemnly declared the victory​” in “exterminating the novel coronavirus that had made inroads into our territory​,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported. ​

Mr. Kim, speaking at a meeting with national health officials, said his government would downgrade its anti-disease vigilance to an “ordinary” level as of Friday, according to the report.

​Outside experts have cast doubt on the North’s ​Covid-related claims, including its past assertions that it had no cases. The figures it has released since May have also been viewed with skepticism, in part because the isolated, impoverished country does not have enough testing kits or laboratories to accurately track a major outbreak.​

According to the Thursday report, Mr. Kim said all the Covid patients identified by his government had been diagnosed with ​the Omicron subvariant BA.2. Though North Korea has reported 4.7 million cases of people developing a high fever during the outbreak,​ it has never said how many were confirmed Covid-19 infections.

The North, which has a population of about 26 million, has reported just 74 deaths during the outbreak. Even those deaths were officially attributed to a “malignant pandemic disease​” or a “malignant virus,” not explicitly to Covid.

North Korean state media released this photo of Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, which it said was taken during a Wednesday meeting with health officials in Pyongyang. Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

South Korean intelligence officials have told lawmakers that some of the North Koreans with fever symptoms may have had diseases like whooping cough, measles or typhoid.

North Korea​ said its outbreak began in late April​. Its​ daily reported caseload of ​people with fevers peaked at 390,000, on May 16. In recent weeks, that figure fell below 100,000, and ​the government began saying that it had brought the outbreak under control.​ It has reported no new cases since July 29.

At the Wednesday meeting with Mr. Kim, North Korean officials said it was “a miracle unprecedented in the world’s public health history​” that the North had quashed the outbreak so quickly despite never having vaccinated its people, according to the state media report.

Last month, the North suggested that the coronavirus had entered the country on foreign objects from South Korea, saying that its outbreak had begun in villages near the countries’ heavily militarized border.​ While not directly blaming the South​, its statement suggested that the objects had been brought in by balloons, which North Korean defectors living in the South often use to send anti-Kim propaganda leaflets, dollar bills and other items across the border.

Kim Yo-jong, Mr. Kim’s sister, took a far more accusatory tone during the Wednesday meeting, blaming “disgusting ones in ​South Korea​” for causing the outbreak by scattering “leaflets, bank notes, awful booklets and things over our territory,” according to the state media report.

“​We have already considered various counteraction plans but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one​,” Ms. Kim, who acts as her brother’s spokeswoman on South Korean issues, was quoted as saying.

She also suggested that Mr. Kim may have had Covid, saying that he had led the national campaign against the virus despite having a “high fever.”

South Korea ​has ​said that it is impossible for the balloon launches to have brought Covid-19 into the North, saying it had consulted disease-control experts on the issue. O​n Thursday, the South Korean government called Ms. Kim’s accusation “far-fetched” and “very rude.”

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