North Korea scrapped a mask mandate and other social distancing rules as leader Kim Jong-un declared victory over COVID-19 this week, state media said on Saturday, three months after the isolated country first acknowledged an outbreak of the virus.

Kim chaired a meeting on COVID on Wednesday and ordered the lifting of maximum anti-epidemic measures imposed in May, adding that North Korea must maintain a “steel anti-epidemic barrier”.

In transitioning to a “normal” anti-epidemic system from the “upper level” system, North Korea has waived the mask requirement and other regulations such as limiting the hours of operation of commercial and public facilities in all areas except border regions, according to the official KCNA.

The North advised those experiencing respiratory symptoms to continue wearing masks and urged people to remain vigilant against “abnormal things” that Pyongyang said were causing the infections.

The North has blamed its COVID outbreak on “foreign things” near its border with the South, while Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, has vowed “deadly revenge” for causing the outbreak.

North Korean defectors and activists in the South have for decades released balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North, sometimes along with food, medicine, money and other items.

North Korea has never confirmed how many people have contracted COVID, apparently due to a lack of funds for widespread testing, reporting only the daily number of patients with fever.

The number rose to 4.77 million, with North Korea reporting no new cases since late last month.

The North’s declaration on COVID comes despite the lack of a known vaccine program. Instead, it said, he relied on shutdowns, domestically produced drugs and what Kim called a “beneficial Korean-style socialist system.”

Infectious disease experts have questioned North Korea’s claims of progress, citing a lack of independent data.

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