SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A large number of North Koreans, including leader Kim Jong Un, attended the funeral of a top official, state media reported Monday, as the country maintains a widely disputed claim that its suspected outbreak of coronavirus is declining.
Since admitting an outbreak of the omicron variant earlier this month, North Korea has only declared how many people have a fever daily and only identified some of the cases as COVID-19. Its state media said Monday that 2.8 million people have fallen ill due to an unidentified fever, but only 68 of them have died since the end of April, an extremely low mortality rate if the illness is suspected to be COVID-19.
North Korea has limited testing capacity for so many sick people, but some experts say it is also likely to underreport deaths to protect Kim from political harm.
The Korean Central News Agency said Kim attended Sunday’s funeral for Hyon Chol Hae, a marshal in the Korean People’s Army who reportedly played a key role in grooming him as the country’s next leader before the father de Kim died in late 2011.
State media photos showed a bare-faced Kim carrying Hyon’s coffin with other men wearing masks before dumping dirt on her grave in the national cemetery. They showed many soldiers dressed in olive green uniforms saluting while other officers dressed in dark suits stood to attention. KCNA said “many” soldiers and citizens took to the streets to express their condolences as Hyon’s coffin was moved to the cemetery.
North Korea maintains a nationwide lockdown and other strict rules to curb the virus outbreak. Movement from region to region is prohibited, but agricultural, economic and other key industrial activities continued in an apparent effort to minimize damage to the country’s already moribund economy.
KCNA said on Monday that 167,650 new fever cases were detected in the latest 24-hour period, a notable drop from the peak of around 390,000 reported a week ago. He said one more person died and the fatality rate from the fever was 0.002%.
“All the people of (North Korea) uphold the current favorable turn in the anti-epidemic campaign with utmost conscience, in response to the call of the party central committee to defend their precious life and future with confidence in sure victory and great efforts were redoubled. ”, KCNA said.
Experts question the true number, given that North Korea’s 26 million people are largely unvaccinated and about 40% are reportedly malnourished. The public health system is nearly broken and chronically short of medicines and supplies. In South Korea, where most of its 52 million people are fully vaccinated, the death rate from COVID-19 was 0.13% as of Monday.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that some of the fever cases reported by North Korea include people suffering from other illnesses such as measles, typhoid and whooping cough. But some civilian experts believe the majority of cases were from COVID-19.
Before admitting to the omicron outbreak on May 12, North Korea had insisted it was virus-free during the pandemic. He has turned down millions of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program and has failed to respond to offers of drugs and other aid from South Korea and the United States.
The World Health Organization also requested more information about the outbreak, but did not get a response.
Some observers say North Korea would only receive assistance from China, its last major ally, because Western aid shipments could damage the leadership of Kim, who has repeatedly called for “self-reliance” to fight US-led pressure campaigns.
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