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Covid-19: North Korea reports no ‘fever’ cases for first time since May

A teacher takes the temperature of a schoolgirl to help curb the spread of coronavirus at Kim Song Ju Primary School in Central District in Pyongyang (Cha Song Ho/AP)
A teacher takes the temperature of a schoolgirl to help curb the spread of coronavirus at Kim Song Ju Primary School in Central District in Pyongyang (Cha Song Ho/AP)

North Korea has reported no new “fever” cases for the first time since it admitted to its first domestic Covid-19 outbreak and placed its 26 million people under more draconian restrictions in May.

There have been widespread doubts about the accuracy of North Korean statistics as its reported deaths are too low and its daily “fever” cases have been plummeting too fast recently.

The country, which lacks test kits, has identified only a fraction of its 4.8 million fever patients as confirmed Covid-19 cases.

Some experts say North Korea has likely manipulated the scale of illness and deaths to help leader Kim Jong Un maintain absolute control amid mounting economic difficulties.

The North’s anti-epidemic centre said via state media it had found zero fever patients in the latest 24-hour period, maintaining the country’s total caseload of about 4.8 million.

North Korea Anniversary
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a liberation war martyrs’ cemetery in Pyongyang (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Its death count remains at 74, with a mortality rate of 0.0016% that would be the world’s lowest if true.

Despite the claimed zero cases, it is unclear whether and how soon North Korea would formally declare victory over Covid-19 and lift pandemic-related curbs because experts say it could face a viral resurgence later this year like many other countries.

North Korea’s state media has recently said it is intensifying and upgrading its anti-epidemic systems to guard against coronavirus subvariants and other diseases like monkeypox that are occurring in other countries.

“The organisational power and unity unique to the society of (North Korea) is fully displayed in the struggle to bring forward a victory in the emergency anti-epidemic campaign,” the official Korean Central News Agency said on Saturday.

North Korea’s claimed zero cases could have symbolic significance in its efforts to establish Kim’s image as a leader who has suppressed the outbreak much faster than other countries.

Kim would need such credentials to garner greater public support to surmount economic hardships caused by pandemic-related border closings, UN sanctions and his own mismanagement, observers say.

“In North Korea, public healthcare and politics can’t be separated from each other, and that aspect has been revealed again in its Covid-19 outbreak,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea.

“Since they began with manipulated data, they’re now putting an end to the outbreak with manipulated data.”

North Korea had been widely expected to claim zero cases as its daily fever caseload has been nosediving in recent days — there were three reported cases on Friday and 11 on Thursday — from a peak of about 400,000 a day in May.

“Realistically speaking, hundreds of thousands of daily fever cases becoming zero in less than three months is something impossible,” said Lee Yo Han, a professor at Ajou University Graduate School of Public Health in South Korea.

Many outside experts earlier worried the North’s outbreak would have devastating consequences because most of its people are believed to be unvaccinated and about 40% are reportedly undernourished.

But now, activists and defectors with contacts in North Korea say they have not heard about anything like a humanitarian disaster happening in the North. They say the country’s outbreak has also likely peaked.

In an indication of an easing outbreak, North Korea this week held massive no-mask public events in its capital, Pyongyang, where thousands of aged Korean War veterans and others gathered from across the country to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 war.

During an anniversary ceremony, Kim hugged and exchanged handshakes with some veterans before he took group photos with other participants. No one wore masks, according to state media photos.