North Korea is blaming its COVID-19 outbreak on “alien things” — including balloons flown from South Korea.
The state media report said the hermit kingdom’s epidemic prevention center had found COVID clusters in the town of Ipho near its southeastern border with South Korea and that some Ipho residents with feverish symptoms traveled to Pyongyang.
The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child had contact with “alien things” in the town located in the eastern county of Kumgang 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 “vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons” along the inter-Korean border and trace their sources. It also stressed that anyone finding “alien things” must notify authorities immediately so they could be removed.
The reports did not specify what the “alien things” were. But laying the blame on things flown across the border likely is a way to ease public complaints about its handling of the pandemic while repeating its objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea, observers say.
After maintaining a widely disputed claim to be coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea on May 12 admitted to the COVID-19 outbreak, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang were diagnosed with the Omicron variant.
North Korea has since reported about 4.7 million fever cases out of its 26 million population but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It says 73 people have died — an extremely low fatality rate.
Both figures are believed to be manipulated by North Korea to keep its people vigilant against the virus and prevent any political damage to leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry responded to North Korea’s unsubstantiated claim by saying there was no chance its balloons might have spread the virus across the border.
Activists and defectors for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets decrying the Kims’ rule, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
Global health authorities say the coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who inhale airborne droplets and it’s more likely to occur in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces than outdoors.
Leafletting campaigns were largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalizing them, and there were no public balloon attempts made in early April.
An activist who is standing trial for past activities flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the border in late April after halting them for a year.
Park Sang-hak floated balloons twice in June, switching the cargo on those attempts to COVID-19 relief items such as masks and painkillers.
Police are still investigating the recent leafleting activities by the activist, Cha Duck Chul, a deputy spokesperson at the South’s Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday.
Cha also said the consensus among South Korean health officials and World Health Organization experts is that infections via contact with the virus on the surface of materials is virtually impossible.
In its previous questionable statements on COVID-19, North Korea also claimed the virus could spread through falling snow or migratory birds. Its pandemic-related restrictions even included strict bans on entering seawater.
North Korea is infuriated by the leafletting campaign because it’s designed to undermine Kim’s authoritarian rule over a population that has little access to outside information.
In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying toward its territory and South Korea returned fire, though there were no casualties.
North Korea’s latest announcement on the virus contradicts the outside view that it spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and it surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
But it would have been difficult for Pyongyang to point fingers at China, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University.
“If they concluded the virus was from China, they would have had to tighten quarantine measures on the border area in a further setback to North Korea-China trade,” Lim said.
Some outside experts have accused Kim of being largely responsible for the outbreak because he organized those events to boost public loyalty to the ruling Kim family amid economic hardships.
With Post wires