North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends large funeral amid Covid concerns

State media claims 2.8 million people have fallen ill with an unidentified fever, but only 68 have died

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a large funeral for a top official, state media reported on Monday, amid North Korea's Covid outbreak.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the funeral in Pyongyang was for Hyon Chol-hae, a Korean People’s Army Marshal. He played a crucial role in grooming Mr Kim as the country’s next leader before his father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011.

The news comes as North Korea maintains that its suspected coronavirus outbreak is subsiding as experts question the low death count.

Since revealing an outbreak of the highly contagious Omicron variant earlier this month, North Korea has said how many people have fevers daily and identified only a fraction of the cases as Covid-19.

Its state media said on Monday that 2.8 million people have fallen ill with an unidentified fever, but only 68 of them died since late April.

North Korea has limited testing capability for that many sick people, but some experts say it is also likely underreporting mortalities to protect Mr Kim from political damage.

Hyon's burial on Sunday was one of the country’s biggest state funerals since Mr Kim's father’s death. Mr Kim, who was not wearing a face mask, carried Mr Hyon’s coffin with other top officials. He then threw earth on to the grave at the national cemetery.

The North Korean leader and hundreds of masked soldiers and officials also bowed before Hyon’s grave, state television footage showed.

State TV earlier showed thousands of other masked soldiers clad in olive-green uniforms gathered at a Pyongyang plaza taking off their hats and paying a silent tribute. A funeral limousine carrying Hyon’s body then left for the cemetery. KCNA said “a great many” soldiers and citizens also turned out along streets to express their condolences.

Kim Jong-un covers the coffin of Marshal of the Korean People's Army Hyon Chol-hae with earth at a cemetery in Pyongyang. Korean Central News Agency/AP

Mr Kim often arranges big funerals for senior officials loyal to his ruling family.

KCNA quoted Mr Kim as saying that “the name of Hyon Chol-hae would be always remembered along with the august name of Kim Jong Il.” He wept when he visited a mourning station for Hyon last week.

During the funeral, most people, except for Mr Kim and honour guards, wore masks. However, an April 25 military parade and related events drew large crowds of maskless people.

North Korea is maintaining a nationwide lockdown and other stringent rules to curb the Covid outbreak. Region-to-region movement is banned, but key agricultural, economic and other industrial activities are continuing in an apparent effort to minimise harm to the country’s already moribund economy.

Updated: May 24, 2022, 9:13 AM
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