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North Korea suggests balloons flown from South Korea brought Covid-19

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Picture by Alexander Khitrov, AP Photo
Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press

North Korea has suggested its Covid-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea.

The highly questionable claim appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible amid increasing tensions.

Activists for years 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 fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there was no chance South Korean balloons might have spread the virus to North Korea.

Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long-running stalemate in US-led diplomacy on persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.

The state media report said North Korea’s epidemic prevention centre had found infection clusters in the town of Ipho near the southeastern border and that some Ipho residents with feverish symptoms travelled to Pyongyang.

The centre said an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old kindergartener had contact with “alien things” in the town in early April and later tested positive for the omicron variant.

In what it called “an emergency instruction”, the epidemic prevention centre ordered officials to “to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons” along the border and trace their sources to the last.

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 repeat its objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea.

Leafletting campaigns were largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalising 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 on Friday.

Laying blame on objects flown across the inter-Korean border contradicts the outside view that the virus 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 events in Pyongyang in April.

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 tested positive for 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 Kim.

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