North Korea Moves to Soften Curbs Amid COVID Count Doubts

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials discussed revising stringent anti-epidemic restrictions during a meeting Sunday, state media reported, as they maintained a widely disputed claim that the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak is slowing.

The discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting suggests it will soon relax a set of draconian curbs imposed after its admission of the omicron outbreak this month out of concern about its food and economic situations.

Kim and other Politburo members “made a positive evaluation of the pandemic situation being controlled and improved across the country,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

They also “examined the issue of effectively and quickly coordinating and enforcing the anti-epidemic regulations and guidelines given the current stable anti-epidemic situation,” KCNA said.

On Sunday, North Korea reported 89,500 more patients with fever symptoms, taking the country’s total to 3.4 million. It didn’t say whether there were additional deaths. The country’s latest death toll reported Friday was 69, setting its mortality rate at 0.002%, an extremely low count that no other country, including advanced economies, has reported in the fight against COVID-19.

To prevent political damage from Kim home, many outside experts believe North Korea has clearly understated its death rate. Because its 26 million inhabitants are not vaccinated against COVID-19, and the country lacks the ability to care for critically ill patients, they believe North Korea ought to have experienced many more deaths. Some suspect that North Korea may have exaggerated earlier cases of fever to increase its internal control.

North Korea only announced the numbers of people with feverish symptoms since its May 12th admission to the Omicron outbreak. However, they did not announce the COVID-19 patients. It is believed that this was due to a shortfall of testing kits in order confirm the coronavirus cases.

Many outside experts consider most cases of fever reported as COVID-19. They believe that North Korean officials would be able to differentiate the symptoms from those caused by other infectious diseases.

North Korea has instituted a nationwide lockdown to prevent any work or residential unit from being shared and also banned movement between regions. Although the country allows certain agricultural and construction activities, the stricter restrictions have raised concerns about the nation’s food security and fragile economy, which were already hard hit by the border closures caused by the pandemic.

Some observers say North Korea will likely soon declare victory over COVID-19 and credit it to Kim’s leadership.

Yang Un-chul, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said the North’s recently elevated restrictions must be dealing a serious blow to its coal, agricultural and other labor-intensive industrial sectors. But he said those difficulties won’t likely rise to a level that threatens Kim’s grip on power, as the COVID-19 outbreak and strengthened curbs have given him a chance to boost his control over the population.

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