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North Korea dictator was 'seriously ill,' his sister says, blaming South Korea for COVID-19

In a striking speech before thousands of North Koreans, leader Kim Jong-un's sister said he suffered a fever while guiding the country to victory over the coronavirus. She blamed rival South Korea for the outbreak and vowed "deadly" retaliation.

Kim Yo Jong's bellicose speech, broadcast in full, included threats to retaliate against South Korea

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, is shown in a 2019 file photo in Hanoi, Vietnam. South Korean officials called her accusations about COVID-19 preposterous. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

In a striking speech before thousands of North Koreans, leader Kim Jong-un's sister said he suffered a fever while guiding the country to victory over the coronavirus. She blamed rival South Korea for the outbreak and vowed "deadly" retaliation.

Kim Yo Jong, a powerful official in charge of inter-Korean relations, glorified her brother's leadership during the outbreak in her speech Wednesday at a national meeting where she jubilantly described the country's widely disputed success over the virus as an "amazing miracle" in global public health.

"Even though he was seriously ill with a high fever, he could not lie down for a moment thinking about the people he had to take care of until the end, in the face of the anti-epidemic war," she said in remarks broadcast on North Korean state television.   

Kim Yo Jong called the country's virus outbreak a "hysteric farce" kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation.

"[South Korean] puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it toughly," she said. "We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one."

North Korean state TV showed some people in the audience of thousands crying as she spoke about her brother's fever — a reference that wasn't further explained. The crowd applauded and cheered as she vowed North Korea will "eradicate not only the virus but also [South Korean] government authorities" if the "enemies continue dangerous acts that could introduce the virus into our republic."

While Kim Yo Jong's profile has increased in recent years, Thursday appeared to be the first time North Korean media have broadcast the complete video and audio of one of her speeches, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

'Amazing miracle': Victory declared over COVID-19

North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by balloons launched from South Korea — a questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to blame its rival.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, expressed strong regret over North Korea's "extremely disrespectful and threatening comments" based on "ridiculous claims."

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday that Kim Jong-un declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered an easing of preventive measures just three months after the country first acknowledged an outbreak.

Since North Korea acknowledged its coronavirus outbreak in May, it has reported about 4.8 million "fever cases" in its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of those as COVID-19. The country, which likely lacks test kits and other public health tools, has claimed the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and that just 74 people have died.

"For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world's history of public health," KCNA quoted him as saying.

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Several weeks since last missile test

For Kim to declare victory against the coronavirus suggests he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting the country's broken and heavily sanctioned economy, which has been further damaged by pandemic border closures, or conducting a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said North Korea could be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years amid a torrid series of weapons tests this year that included its first launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017, with the last missile test in early June.

Kim Yo Jong's bellicose rhetoric indicates she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on South Korea and is also looking to justify North Korea's next military provocation, Easley said.

North Korea's claim about the origin of the outbreak contradicts outside experts, who believe the Omicron variant spread when the country briefly reopened its border with China to freight traffic in January, and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang, its capital, in April.

In May, Kim Jong-un prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus.

At the virus meeting, he called for the easing of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.

With files from Reuters

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