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North Korea has eased strict epidemic restrictions, Russian embassy says

The Russian Embassy in North Korea said the country had relaxed strict epidemic controls in the capital Pyongyang that had been in place for the past five days to slow the spread of respiratory illnesses.

North Korea has not officially acknowledged a lockdown in Pyongyang or a re-emergence of COVID-19 after leader Kim Jong Un declared a widely disputed victory over the coronavirus in August, but the Russian embassy’s Facebook posts provided rare glimpses of contagion from the secret country. disease control.

The embassy on Monday issued a notice issued by the North Korean Foreign Ministry informing foreign diplomats that the “intensified anti-epidemic period” imposed on Pyongyang since Wednesday has been lifted from Monday.

Last week, the embassy said North Korean health authorities required diplomatic missions to keep their employees indoors and also measure their temperature four times a day and report the results to a hospital in Pyongyang. He said the North Korean measures were responding to an increase in “influenza and other respiratory illnesses”, but he did not mention the spread of COVID-19 or the restrictions imposed on ordinary citizens.

Shortly before this post, NK News, a North Korea-focused news site, cited a North Korean government notice to report that health officials had imposed a five-day lockdown in Pyongyang in the purpose of stemming the spread of respiratory diseases.

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North Korean state media did not mention any preventive measures specifically related to COVID-19 as it tightened restrictions in Pyongyang last week. But on Wednesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said North Korean health workers had “redoubled” their efforts to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and firmly maintain an “anti-epidemic atmosphere”. throughout society to deal with the “daily aggravation”. global health crisis. »

“(Health workers) are directing their main efforts towards consolidating the anti-epidemic barrier and intensifying medical examination and disinfection to prevent the occurrence and spread of viral respiratory diseases, including influenza ,” the agency said. “They also make it a daily routine to measure temperatures and sterilize people’s hands in crowded places and ensure medical examination accuracy.”

North Koreans visit the statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea, January 22, 2023. The Russian embassy in North Korea says the country has eased epidemic controls that have been put in place to slow the spread of respiratory diseases. diseases.

It’s hard to get an idea of ​​the virus situation in North Korea, as the country has been tightly locked down since the start of 2020, with authorities imposing strict border controls, banning tourists and aid workers and expelling diplomats while trying to protect their poor health care system.

North Korea’s admission of a COVID-19 outbreak in May last year came after it spent 2½ years rejecting outside offers of vaccines and other aid while firmly asserting that its socialist system was protecting its people from an “evil” virus that had killed millions elsewhere. .

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the number of foreign missions currently active in North Korea would be 10 or fewer, a list that includes missions from China, Vietnam and Cuba as well as the Russian Embassy.

North Korean state media in recent weeks have emphasized vigilance against a possible re-emergence of COVID-19. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which previously described the anti-virus campaign as the “No. 1 priority” in national affairs, called on North Koreans to maintain a “sense of crisis high” on Monday as the COVID-19 continues to spread to neighboring countries. .

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Some analysts say North Korea could take pre-emptive action as it prepares to hold huge public events in Pyongyang – possibly as early as next week – to glorify Kim’s authoritarian leadership and the expansion of his nuclear weapons and missile program.

Recent commercial satellite images have indicated preparations for a massive military parade in Pyongyang, likely for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army which falls on February 8 – an opportunity Kim could potentially use to showcase his growing collection nuclear-capable missiles.

According to 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea studies, satellite images taken on Friday indicated parade practices continued at a training site in southeast Pyongyang despite the reported lockdown. But no activity was seen in Kim Il Sung Square in the central part of the city where the country usually hosts military parades, according to the report.

Some outside experts have linked North Korea’s 2022 COVID-19 outbreak to a massive military parade in April, where Kim vowed to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons and threatened to use them if provoked.

North Korea maintains it has had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 since August 10, when Kim used a major political conference to declare the country eradicated the coronavirus, just three months after the country declared recognized an outbreak of omicron.

While Kim claimed the country’s alleged success against the virus would be recognized as a global health miracle, experts believe North Korea has manipulated revelations about its outbreak to help it maintain absolute control.

From May to August, North Korea reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million, but identified only a fraction of them as COVID-19. Experts say the country’s official death toll of 74 is abnormally low, given the country’s lack of public health tools.

North Korea has dubiously insisted rival South Korea was responsible for its COVID-19 outbreak, saying the virus was carried by anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets and other materials carried across the border by balloons launched by South Korean civilian activists. South Korea has dismissed these claims as unscientific and “ridiculous”.

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