(ATTN: UPDATES with presidential official's remark in 7th para)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, Aug. 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's unification ministry on Thursday voiced strong regret over North Korea's claim that its COVID-19 outbreak had originated from the South and its threats of an unspecified retaliatory step.
Earlier in the day, Pyongyang's state media reported that leader Kim Jong-un held a national meeting the previous day and declared victory in the campaign against COVID-19.
During the session, his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who serves as vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, reiterated Pyongyang's assertion that leaflets from the South carried the virus into the North and raised the need to take "deadly retaliatory" countermeasures.
The government "expresses strong regret over North Korea's insolent and threatening remarks based on repeated groundless claims regarding the inflow of the coronavirus at the national meeting on reviewing anti-epidemic measures," an official at the ministry told reporters on the customary condition of anonymity.
The South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it is maintaining a "firm" readiness posture and preparing against "various possibilities."
Kim, who is known to be in charge of inter-Korean affairs, made the first known public speech laden with criticism against South Korea, reaffirming her political role and responsibility in handling cross-border and external affairs. Kim is considered to hold a position equivalent to a vice minister in the South, according to South Korean officials, but she is regarded to be more influential in the authoritarian regime as the sister of the leader.
When asked who her South Korean counterpart would be, a presidential official said, "I would think it would be something like the vice unification minister, but we need to think about that."
In her address aired on the state-run Korean Central Television, with its transcript carried by the KCNA as well, Kim labeled Seoul as the "invariable principal enemy" and blamed the South's scattering of "leaflets, bank notes, awful booklets and things" as the source of the coronavirus.
Last month, the North claimed its coronavirus outbreak originated from "alien things" found near the inter-Korean border, alluding to balloon-carried materials sent by North Korean defector groups in the South.
She also took aim at the current administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, calling it a "puppet government" and a "gang of conservative puppets."
"If the enemy persists in such dangerous deeds as fomenting the inroads of virus into our Republic, we will respond to it by not only exterminating the virus but also wiping out the South Korean authorities," she said.
North Korea has "already considered various counteraction plans," she added, without providing any further details.
Kim then stressed her brother's devotion and leadership in successfully tackling the coronavirus pandemic. The North's declared the end to the virus crisis comes amid multiple challenges, including economic woes from prolonged global sanctions.
Pyongyang announced its first COVID-19 case on May 12 after claiming to be coronavirus-free for over two years.
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