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NKorea Claims Victory Over COVID       08/11 06:09

   

   SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- In a striking speech before thousands of North 
Koreans, leader Kim Jong Un's sister said he suffered a fever while guiding the 
country to victory over the coronavirus. She blamed rival South Korea for the 
outbreak and vowed "deadly" retaliation.

   Kim Yo Jong, a powerful official in charge of inter-Korean relations, 
glorified her brother's leadership during the outbreak in her speech Wednesday 
at a national meeting where he jubilantly described the country's widely 
disputed success over the virus as an "amazing miracle" in global public health.

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

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that Kim Jong 
Un declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered an easing of preventive measures 
just three months after the country first acknowledged an outbreak.

   In her first known televised speech, his sister said he suffered a fever and 
glorified his "epoch-making" leadership. In a dubious claim, she accused South 
Korea of spreading COVID-19 to North Korea's largely unvaccinated populace, 
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 contact with objects carried by balloons launched from South 
Korea -- a questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to blame its rival.

   South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, 
expressed strong regret over North Korea's "extremely disrespectful and 
threatening comments" based on "ridiculous claims."

   A senior South Korean presidential office official, who spoke on condition 
of anonymity in a background briefing, said Seoul is preparing for various 
possible North Korean provocations, including a test detonation of a nuclear 
device.

   Since North Korea acknowledged its coronavirus outbreak in May, it has 
reported about 4.8 million "fever cases" in its population of 26 million but 
only identified a fraction of those as COVID-19. The country, which likely 
lacks test kits and other public health tools, has claimed the outbreak has 
been slowing for weeks and that just 74 people have died.

   "Since we began operating the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in 
May), daily fever cases that reached hundreds of thousands during the early 
days of the outbreak were reduced to below 90,000 a month later and 
continuously decreased, and not a single case of fever suspected to be linked 
to the evil virus has been reported since July 29," Kim said in his speech 
Wednesday during a national meeting at which he announced a revised pandemic 
response.

   "For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success 
in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and 
recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free 
zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world's history 
of public health," KCNA quoted him as saying.

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

   South Korean and U.S. officials have said North Korea could be gearing up 
for its first nuclear test in five years amid a torrid series of weapons tests 
this year that included its first launches of intercontinental ballistic 
missiles since 2017.

   The provocative tests underscore Kim's intent to advance his arsenal while 
also pressuring the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations in 
which he hopes to use his nuclear weapons as leverage for badly needed 
sanctions relief and security concessions, experts say.

   Kim Yo Jong's bellicose rhetoric indicates she will try to blame any 
COVID-19 resurgence on South Korea and is also looking to justify North Korea's 
next military provocation, Easley said.

   Activists in South Korea for years have flown balloons across the border to 
distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim's 
regime. North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South 
Korea's government for not stopping them.

   During Wednesday's meeting, Kim Yo Jong called the country's virus outbreak 
a "hysteric farce" kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation.

   "(South Korean) puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into 
our territory. We must counter it toughly," she said. "We have already 
considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly 
retaliatory one."

   North Korean state TV showed some people in the audience of thousands crying 
as she spoke about her brother's fever -- a reference that wasn't further 
explained. The crowd applauded and cheered as she vowed North Korea will 
"eradicate not only the virus but also (South Korean) government authorities" 
if the "enemies continue dangerous acts 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 her brother's leadership circle, Thursday 
was the first time North Korean media have broadcast the complete video and 
audio of one of her speeches, South Korea's Unification Ministry said. The 
highlighting of her speech by state media reflects her rising status and could 
be aimed at emphasizing the threat directed at South Korea.

   In 2020, Kim Yo Jong drove a pressure campaign in which North Korea blew up 
an empty South Korean-built liaison office in its territory and threatened to 
end a 2018 military agreement on reducing border tensions, in a furious 
response to South Korean leafletting campaigns. In 2014, North Korea fired at 
propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire, 
though 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 freight traffic in January, and surged 
further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang, 
its capital, in April.

   In May, Kim Jong Un prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow 
the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be 
met, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial 
and construction sites.

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

 
 
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