North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials discussed revising strict restrictions to fight the epidemic during a meeting on Sunday, state media reported, as they maintained a widely disputed claim that the country was developing its first COVID-19 outbreak slowed down.

Discussion at the North’s Politburo meeting suggests it will soon ease a series of draconian restrictions imposed after its admission of the Omicron outbreak earlier this month over concerns about its food and economic health.

Kim and other members of the Politburo “have made a positive assessment of the control and improvement of the pandemic situation across the country,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

They “also studied the issue of effectively and expeditiously coordinating and enforcing the anti-epidemic regulations and policies in light of the current stable anti-epidemic situation,” KCNA said.

On Sunday, North Korea reported 89,500 more patients with fever symptoms, bringing the country’s total to 3.4 million. It was not said if there were any other deaths. The country’s last death toll reported on Friday was 69, giving it a 0.002 percent death rate, an extremely low figure that no other country, including advanced economies, has reported fighting COVID-19.

Many outside experts say North Korea is grossly underestimating its death rate to prevent 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 it is unable to treat patients with critical conditions. Others suggest North Korea may have exaggerated its past fever cases to try to tighten its internal control over its people.

CLOCK | North Korea rejects offers of vaccines, help from other countries:

North Korea rejects offers of help to fight the COVID-19 outbreak

There are fears of a COVID-19 disaster in North Korea as officials reject offers of vaccines and help from other countries. The rise in cases is partly attributed to a series of national celebrations in April that drew huge unvaccinated crowds, likely spreading the virus.

Since its admission of the Omicron outbreak on May 12, North Korea has only reported the number of patients with febrile symptoms every day but not those with COVID-19, apparently due to a lack of testing kits to confirm large numbers of coronavirus cases.

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

Nationwide lockdown

The outbreak has forced North Korea to impose a nationwide lockdown, isolating all work and living units and banning movement from region to region.

The country still allows vital agricultural, construction and other industrial activities, but the tightened restrictions have raised concerns about its food insecurity and a fragile economy, already badly hit by pandemic-related border closures.

Some observers say North Korea is likely to soon declare victory over COVID-19, attributing it to Kim’s leadership.

Yang Un-chul, an analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, said the north’s recently tightened restrictions must deal a severe blow to its coal, agriculture and other labor-intensive industrial sectors.

But he said those difficulties are unlikely to develop to levels that threaten Kim’s power grab, as the COVID-19 outbreak and increased curbs have given him a chance to tighten his control over his people.

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