SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A large number of North Koreans, including leader Kim Jong Un, attended a funeral for a top official, state media reported Monday, as the country maintained much-disputed claims that its suspected coronavirus outbreak was waning .
Since North Korea admitted an outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron variant earlier this month, it has only reported how many people have fevers each day and identified just a fraction of cases as COVID-19. State media said Monday that 2.8 million people have contracted an unidentified fever, but only 68 of them have died since late April, an extremely low mortality rate if the disease is COVID-19, as suspected.
North Korea has limited testing capacity for so many sick people, but some experts say it’s also likely underreporting deaths to protect Kim from political harm.
The official Korean Central News Agency said Kim attended Sunday’s funeral of Hyon Chol Hae, a Marshal of the Korean People’s Army who played a key role in making him the country’s next leader before Kim’s father Kim Jong Il died in late 2011 .
At one of the largest state funerals in the country since his father’s death, Kim Jong Un, bare-faced, carried Hyon’s coffin with other top officials wearing masks before he threw dirt into his grave with his hands at the national cemetery. Kim and hundreds of masked soldiers and officials also bowed deeply to Hyon’s grave, state television footage showed.
State television earlier showed thousands of other masked soldiers in olive green uniforms gathered in a square in Pyongyang, taking off their hats and paying a silent homage before a funeral limo carrying Hyon’s body drove to the cemetery. KCNA said “a great many” soldiers and citizens also took to the streets to express their condolences.
Often arranging large funerals for deceased high-ranking officials loyal to his ruling family, Kim shows a human side in a possible attempt to garner the support of the country’s ruling elite and strengthen internal unity.
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KCNA quoted Kim as saying that “the name of Hyon Chol Hae would always be remembered along with the exalted name of Kim Jong Il.” He cried while visiting a funeral home set up for Hyon last week.
During Sunday’s funeral, most people wore masks except for Kim Jong Un and the honor guard. The north’s ongoing outbreak was likely caused by the April 25 military parade and related events, which drew large crowds not wearing masks.
North Korea maintains a nationwide lockdown and other strict rules to contain the virus outbreak. Movement from region to region is banned, but key agricultural, commercial and other industrial activities have continued to minimize damage to the country’s already ailing economy.
KCNA said Monday that 167,650 new fever cases had been detected in the past 24 hours, a notable drop from the peak of about 390,000 reported about a week ago. It said one more person had died and the fatality rate from the fever was 0.002 percent.
“All the people of (North Korea) uphold the current positive turn in the anti-epidemic campaign with the utmost awareness, in response to the Party Central Committee’s call to save their precious lives and future in confidence of assured victory and with doubled great.” efforts to defend,” KCNA said.
Experts question the North’s record, as North Korea’s 26 million people are largely unvaccinated and about 40 percent are reportedly malnourished. The public health system has almost collapsed and there is a chronic shortage of medicines and supplies. In South Korea, where most of its 52 million people are fully vaccinated, the death rate from COVID-19 stood at 0.13 percent Monday.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week that some of the fever cases recorded by North Korea include people suffering from other diseases, such as measles, typhoid and whooping cough. However, some civilian experts believe most of the cases were related to COVID-19.
Before admitting the Omicron outbreak on May 12, North Korea had insisted it was virus-free throughout the pandemic. It has turned down millions of vaccines offered by the UN-backed COVAX distribution program and has not responded to offers of medicines and other aid from South Korea and the United States.
The World Health Organization has also asked for more information about the outbreak but has received no response.
Some observers say North Korea would only get help from China, its last major ally, because western aid could damage Kim’s leadership, as he has repeatedly called for “self-reliance” to fight US-led pressure campaigns.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.