SEOUL, South Korea: North Korea on Saturday reported no new cases of fever for the first time since it abruptly admitted its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak and placed its 26 million people under more stringent restrictions in May.
There are widespread doubts about the accuracy of North Korea’s statistics because its reported death toll is so low, and its daily fever cases have been declining rapidly recently. Some experts say North Korea has manipulated the scale of illness and deaths to help leader Kim Jong Un maintain complete control amid growing economic difficulties.
The state’s emergency anti-epidemic centre, via state media, found zero fever patients in the latest 24-hour period. It said its total caseload stood at around 4.8 million and that about 99.99% have fully recovered. The country’s death toll remains at 74, with a mortality rate of 0.0016%, which, if true, would be the lowest in the world.
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. Recently, North Korea’s state media has repeatedly said it’s intensifying and upgrading its anti-epidemic systems to guard against coronavirus subvariants and other diseases like monkeypox in other countries.
“The organizational 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 by fully executing the anti-epidemic policies of the party and the state,” the official Korean Central News Agency said Saturday.
North Korea’s claimed zero cases could still have symbolic significance in its efforts to establish Kim’s image as a leader who has controlled the outbreak much faster than other countries. Observers say that Kim would need such credentials to garner greater public support to surmount economic hardships caused by pandemic-related border closings, U.N. sanctions and his mismanagement.
“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.”
The zero cases have been widely expected as North Korea’s daily fever caseload has been nosediving in recent days — three reported cases on Friday and 11 on Thursday — from a peak of about 400,000 a day in May. The country lacks test kits and has identified only a fraction of its 4.8 million fever patients as confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Many outside experts 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 haven’t heard about anything like a humanitarian disaster happening in North Korea.
In an indication of an easing outbreak, North Korea 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.
Shin Young-jeon, a professor of preventive medicine at Seoul’s Hanyang University, said North Korea would know that zero cases don’t mean it has no COVID-19 patients because there are likely asymptomatic cases. He said North Korea wouldn’t likely announce it has officially overcome the pandemic anytime soon because of worries about a resurgence.
Other experts say the North’s fatalities would be several thousand at the maximum. They said bigger death tolls must have been detected by North Korea monitoring groups.