SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Large numbers of North Koreans, including leader Kim Jong Un, attended the funeral of a senior official, state media reported Monday, as the country maintained a much-disputed claim that his alleged coronavirus outbreak is easing.
Since admitting an outbreak of the omicron variant earlier this month, North Korea has only reported the number of people with fever daily and identified only a few of the cases as COVID- 19. Its state media said on Monday that 2.8 million people have fallen ill with an unidentified fever, but only 68 of them have died since late April, an extremely low death rate if the disease is COVID-19 as suspected.
North Korea has limited testing capacity for that many sick people, but some experts say it is also likely to underreport deaths to protect Kim from political harm.
Korea’s official Central News Agency said Kim attended the funeral on Sunday of Hyon Chol Hae, a marshal in the Korean People’s Army who is believed to have played a key role in shaping him as the country’s next leader before the death of the Kim’s father at the end of 2011.
Photos from state media showed a bare-faced Kim carrying Hyon’s coffin with other men wearing masks before throwing dirt on his grave at the national cemetery. They showed many soldiers in olive green uniforms saluting while other officials in dark suits stood to attention. KCNA said “a large number” of soldiers and citizens took to the streets earlier to express their condolences when Hyon’s coffin was moved to the cemetery.
North Korea is maintaining a nationwide lockdown and other strict rules to curb the virus outbreak. Region-to-region travel is banned, but major agricultural, economic and industrial activities were continuing in an apparent effort to minimize damage to the country’s already moribund economy.
KCNA said Monday that 167,650 new cases of fever had been detected in the past 24 hours, a notable drop from the peak of around 390,000 reported about a week ago. He said another person had died and the fever fatality rate was 0.002%.
“All the people of (North Korea) maintain the current favorable turn of the anti-epidemic campaign with maximum conscience, in response to the call from the party’s central committee to defend their precious lives and future with confidence in a victory. safe and redoubled efforts,” KCNA said.
Experts question the true toll, given that North Korea’s 26 million people are mostly unvaccinated and around 40% are believed to be undernourished. 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 immunized, the death rate from COVID-19 was 0.13% on Monday.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that some of North Korea’s reported fever cases included people with other illnesses like measles, typhoid and whooping cough. But some civilian experts believe most of the cases were COVID-19.
Before admitting the omicron outbreak on May 12, North Korea had insisted it was virus-free throughout the pandemic. He snubbed millions of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program and failed to respond to offers of drugs and other aid from South Korea and the United States.
The World Health Organization also pleaded for more information about the outbreak but got no response.
Some observers say North Korea would only receive aid from China, its last major ally, because Western aid shipments could harm the leadership of Kim, who has repeatedly called for “self-reliance” to fight against the pressure campaigns carried out by the United States.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.