COVID: North Korea suggests balloons from South brought virus

Seoul, South Korea –

North Korea suggested on Friday that its COVID-19 outbreak started in people who had come into contact with balloons from South Korea – a highly questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival accountable in a context of growing tensions.

For years, activists have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often expressed its fury at the activists and against South Korean leaders for not arresting them.

Global health authorities say the coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who inhale airborne droplets and is more likely to occur in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces than outdoors. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there was no chance that South Korean balloons could have spread the virus to North Korea.

Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long standoff in US-led diplomacy to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.

The state media report said North Korea’s epidemic prevention center found clusters of infection in Ipho city near the southeastern border and some Ipho residents with symptoms feverish traveled to Pyongyang. The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old kindergarten student had contact with « alien things » in the city in early April and later tested positive for the Omicron variant.

In what it called « an emergency instruction, » the epidemic prevention center ordered officials to « deal vigilantly with extraterrestrial things coming from the wind and other weather phenomena and balloons » along the border and to trace their sources to the last. He also stressed that anyone who finds « extraterrestrial things » should notify authorities immediately so they can be removed.

The reports did not specify what the « extraterrestrial things » were. But blaming things that crossed the border is likely a way of repeating his objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea.

Leafleting campaigns were largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalizing them, and there were no public balloon attempts in early April.

An activist who is on trial for his past activities flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the border in late April after disrupting them for a year. Park Sang-hak floated balloons twice in June, shifting cargo on those attempts for COVID-19 relief items such as masks and painkillers.

Police are still investigating recent leafleting activities by the activist, Cha Duck Chul, deputy spokesperson for the Southern Unification Ministry, told reporters on Friday.

Cha also said the consensus among South Korean health officials and World Health Organization experts is that infections through contact with the virus on the surface of materials are virtually impossible.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute said North Korea wants its people to believe the coronavirus came from leaflets, US dollars or other materials carried across the border by the balloons.

Cheong said North Korea would likely severely punish anyone who secretly takes such South Korean items. He said North Korea could also try to shoot down incoming South Korean balloons, a move that would prompt South Korea to retaliate and sharply escalate animosities between the countries.

North Korea is infuriated by the leafleting campaign because it is designed to undermine Kim’s authoritarian rule on a population that has little access to outside information. In 2014, North Korea fired on propaganda balloons flying towards its territory and South Korea retaliated, although there were no casualties.

Blaming objects crossing the inter-Korean border contradicts the outside view that the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to cargo traffic in January and has yet to increased after a military parade and other events in Pyongyang in April.

After maintaining a widely disputed claim of being coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea admitted the COVID-19 outbreak on May 12, saying an unknown number of people in Pyongyang had tested positive. for the Omicron variant.

North Korea has since reported about 4.7 million fever cases out of its 26 million people, but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It says 73 people have died, an extremely low death rate. Both figures are believed to be manipulated by North Korea to keep its people vigilant against the virus and avoid political damage to Kim.


Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.


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