Kim Jong-un, other North Koreans attend big funeral amid fears of coronavirus outbreak

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and numerous other North Koreans attended the funeral of a senior official, state media reported Monday, while North Korea maintained controversial claims that the suspected coronavirus outbreak was subsiding.

After admitting an outbreak of the highly contagious strain of Omicron earlier this month, North Korea revealed how many people a day had a fever, and identified only a small fraction of those as COVID-19. State media reported on Monday that 2.8 million people had become ill from the unknown fever, but only 68 people had died since the end of April.

North Korea has limited testing capabilities for many sick people, but some experts say they may be underreporting deaths to protect Kim from political damage.

Before the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011, Kim attended the funeral of Hyeon Chol-hae, Marshal of the Korean People’s Army, who played a key role in nurturing himself as the country’s next leader, KCNA reported.

At the funeral, one of the largest state-run funerals in the country since the death of his father, bare-faced Kim Jong-un, along with other high-ranking officials wearing masks, threw his hand at the national cemetery while carrying the prefectural coffin. Hundreds of masked soldiers and officials, including Chairman Kim, also bowed deeply in front of the tomb of the prefecture, which was recorded on state TV video.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended the funeral of Hyon Chol-hae. KCNA via AFP

Earlier, state TV showed thousands of other masked soldiers in olive-colored uniforms gathered in Pyongyang Square to take off their hats and mourn in silence before a funeral limousine carrying Hyun’s body left for the cemetery. The Korean Central News Agency reported that “many” soldiers and citizens took to the streets to pay their respects.

Chairman Kim often arranges funerals for the late high-ranking officials loyal to the ruling powers, and shows his human side to win support from the ruling elite and promote internal unity.

The Korean Central News Agency quoted Chairman Kim as saying that along with the August issue of Kim Jong-il, the name of Hyeon Chol-hae will be remembered forever. He shed tears last week when he visited the memorial prepared for Hyun-i.

At Sunday’s funeral, most people were wearing masks, except for Kim Jong-un and his bodyguards. The continued outbreak in North Korea may have resulted in large unmasked crowds due to the April 25 military parade and related events.

North Korea maintains nationwide lockdowns and other strict rules to contain the virus outbreak. Although cross-regional movement was banned, major agricultural, economic and other industrial activities continued in an apparent effort to minimize damage to the already dying national economy.

KCNA said Monday that 167,650 new fever cases were detected in the last 24 hours, a marked decrease from the peak of about 390,000 reported about a week ago. One more person died and the fatality rate of fever was 0.002%.

“All the people of[North Korea]will, confident of a firm victory, make greater efforts and maintain the current favorable turn in the fight against the epidemic as the greatest consciousness in the fight against the epidemic in response to the call of the Party Central Committee to safeguard precious lives and futures. “, said the Korean Central News Agency.

Experts are questioning this figure, given that North Korea’s 26 million people are mostly unvaccinated and about 40% are malnourished. The public health system is nearly broken and chronically short of medicines and supplies. South Korea’s COVID-19 fatality rate, where most of its 52 million population has been vaccinated, was 0.13% as of Monday.

A South Korean spy agency told lawmakers last week that some of the fever cases that North Korea counted included people suffering from other diseases such as measles, typhoid and whooping cough. However, some private experts believe that most cases are COVID-19.

North Korea claimed to be virus-free during the epidemic before admitting an Omicron outbreak on May 12. They ignored millions of vaccines provided by the UN-funded COVAX distribution program and did not respond to offers of pharmaceuticals and other aid from South Korea and the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also requested additional information on the outbreak, but received no response.

Some observers say North Korea will only get aid from its last major ally, China. Because, as Chairman Kim repeatedly calls for “self-reliance” to combat US-led pressure campaigns, Western aid deliveries could undermine his leadership.

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