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N Korea claims victory over virus, blames Seoul for outbreak

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered an easing of preventive measures, calling his country’s officially reported death toll of just 74 people an unprecedented miracle in the history of world health, state media said Thursday.

Kim’s powerful sister also spoke during the virus meeting in capital, Pyongyang, on Wednesday and blamed the country’s infections on anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown in by rival South Korea and warned of counteraction that would be a “deadly retaliatory one.”

After maintaining a widely disputed claim to be coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea on May 12 admitted to a COVID-19 outbreak, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang were diagnosed with the omicron variant.

North Korea has since reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” out of its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It says 74 people have died, an extremely low fatality rate that experts have widely questioned in part because almost no one in North Korea is vaccinated against the coronavirus.

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North Korean health officials have been claiming a slowing outbreak for weeks, reporting no suspected cases since late July, a rapid decline experts have also questioned.

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Some experts say North Korea has likely manipulated the scale of illness and deaths to help Kim maintain his absolute leadership amid mounting economic difficulties in the isolated nation.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that Kim “solemnly declared the victory in the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign” and instructed a return to normal level preventive measures.

He called for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective controls in border areas, citing the global spread of new COVID-19 variants and monkeypox.

Following the country’s first admission of the outbreak in May, Kim placed strict prohibitions on 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.

North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea — a questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible amid increasing tensions over the North’s nuclear program.

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

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During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis 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.”

Such claims contradict outside views that the coronavirus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.

Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long-running stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy on persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.

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

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