Activist state

North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19

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FILE – Quran defectors from the North release balloons carrying leaflets condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government’s policies, in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, October 10 2014. North Korea suggested on Friday July 1, 2022 its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons from South Korea, a highly questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold his rival accountable amid rising tensions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

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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 amid growing tensions over its nuclear program.

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. South Korean and US officials recently said North Korea was ready for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid round of weapons tests this year.

The state media report said North Korea’s epidemic prevention center had found clusters of infection in the city of Ipho near its southeastern border with South Korea and that some residents of ‘Ipho with feverish symptoms 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 elements coming from wind and other weather phenomena and balloons” along the inter-Korean 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 cross the border is likely a way to assuage 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. .

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.

In its previous dubious statements on COVID-19, North Korea also claimed that the virus could be spread by snowfall or migrating birds. Its pandemic-related restrictions even included strict bans on entering seawater.

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 leaflet 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.

North Korea’s latest announcement about the virus contradicts the outside view that it 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 large-scale events in Pyongyang in April. Some outside experts have accused Kim of being largely responsible for the outbreak because he staged the events to bolster public loyalty to the ruling Kim family amid economic hardship.

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 been diagnosed with it. 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.

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