North Korea set to ease restrictions amid doubts over COVID numbers

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

Discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting suggests he will soon ease a set of draconian restrictions imposed after he admitted the omicron outbreak this month out of concern over his food and economic situation.

Kim and other bureau members at the meeting “made a positive assessment of controlling and improving the pandemic situation across the country,” the official Korean News Agency said.

KCNA said the bureau “considered the issue of effective and prompt coordination and enforcement of anti-epidemic regulations and guidelines in view of the current stable anti-epidemic situation.”

On Sunday, North Korea reported 89,500 new patients with fever symptoms, bringing the country’s total to 3.4 million. He did not say if there were any additional deaths. The country’s latest death toll reported on Friday was 69, setting its death rate at 0.002%, an extremely low number that no other country, including advanced economies, has reported in the fight against COVID-19.

Many outside experts say North Korea was clearly underestimating its death rate to avoid any political damage to Kim at home. They say North Korea should have suffered many more deaths because its 26 million people are largely unvaccinated against COVID-19 and lack the capacity to treat patients in critical conditions. Others suspect North Korea exaggerated its early fever cases in an attempt to tighten its internal control of its population.

Since its May 12 admission of the omicron outbreak, North Korea has only announced the number of patients with febrile symptoms daily, but not those with COVID-19, reportedly due to a shortage of test kits to confirm coronavirus cases in large numbers.

But many outside health experts consider most reported fever cases to be COVID-19, saying North Korean authorities would know how to distinguish the symptoms from fevers caused by other common infectious diseases.

The outbreak forced North Korea to impose a nationwide lockdown, isolate all work and living units from each other, and ban region-to-region movement. The country still allows major agricultural, construction and other industrial activities, but the tightened restrictions have raised concerns about its food insecurity and a fragile economy already hard hit by border closures caused by the pandemic.

Hyung-jin Kim, Associated Press