Seoul, South Korea — North Korea suggested Friday’s COVID-19 outbreak started among people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea — a highly questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival accountable amid mounting tensions over its nuclear program.
Activists have flown balloons across the border for years to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often expressed anger at the activists and South Korea’s leadership for denying them. didn’t hold back.
Global health authorities say the coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who breathe airborne droplets and is more likely to occur in closed, poorly ventilated areas than outdoors. The South Korean Unification Ministry said there was no chance South Korean balloons would have spread the virus to North Korea.
Ties between the Koreas remain tense amid a protracted stalemate in US-led diplomacy over persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic and political benefits. South Korean and US officials recently said North Korea is ready for its first nuclear test in five years, amid its scorching series of weapons tests this year.
The state media report said the North Korean Center for Epidemic Prevention had found infection clusters in the city of Ipho near the southeastern border with South Korea and that some Ipho residents have traveled to Pyongyang with feverish symptoms. The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old toddler 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 order,” the Center for Epidemic Prevention ordered officials to “be vigilant about extraterrestrials coming through the winds and other climate phenomena and balloons” along the inter-Korean border and trace their sources down to the last. . It also stressed that anyone who finds “alien things” should immediately notify authorities so that they can be removed.
The reports did not specify what the “alien things” were. But blaming things that flew over the border is likely one way to alleviate public complaints about handling the pandemic, while raising objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea. repeated, observers say.
Leaflet 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 on trial for past activities flew balloons over the border with propaganda leaflets in late April after holding them up for a year. Park Sang-hak floated balloons twice in June, transferring the payload on those attempts to COVID-19 devices such as masks and painkillers.
Police are still investigating the activist’s recent pamphlet activities, Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesman for the Southern Department of Unification, told reporters 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.
In its previous dubious statements about COVID-19, North Korea also claimed that the virus could spread through falling snow or migratory birds. The pandemic-related restrictions even include strict prohibitions to enter seawater.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s Sejong Institute said North Korea wants its people to believe that the coronavirus came from leaflets, US dollars or other material carried across the border by the balloons.
Cheong said North Korea is likely to severely punish anyone who secretly steals 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 fire back and greatly escalate hostilities between the countries.
North Korea is outraged by the pamphlet campaign because it aims to undermine Kim’s authoritarian rule over a population with little access to outside information. In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons that flew into its territory and South Korea returned fire, though there were no casualties.
North Korea’s latest announcement about the virus contradicts outside belief that it spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to cargo traffic in January and it rose further after a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April. Some outside experts have accused Kim of being largely responsible for the outbreak, as he organized those events to increase public loyalty to the ruling Kim family amid economic hardship.
After more than two years of upholding a widespread claim to be coronavirus-free, North Korea admitted on May 12 that the COVID-19 outbreak had been diagnosed and said an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang had the ommicron variant. was established.
North Korea has since reported about 4.7 million fever cases out of its 26 million population, but only a fraction of those identified as COVID-19. It says 73 people have died, an extremely low death rate. Both figures are said to have been manipulated by North Korea to keep the population vigilant against the virus and to prevent political damage to Kim.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.