Seoul, South Korea — North Korea suggested on Friday that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had been exposed to balloons blown up by South Korea – a highly dubious claim that has come amid rising tensions over its nuclear program to blame its rival. Appears to be an attempt.
Activists have flown balloons across the border over the years to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often angered activists and South Korean leadership for not stopping them. .
Global health officials 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 outside. South Korea’s unification ministry said there was no possibility that South Korean balloons could spread the virus to North Korea.
Relations between Korea are strained amid a long-running standoff in US-led diplomacy over persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic and political gains. South Korean and US officials have said recently that North Korea is ready for its first nuclear test in five years, amid its fiercest test of weapons this year.
State media reports that North Korea’s Epidemic Prevention Center had found infection clusters in the city of Ifo, near its southeastern border with South Korea, and that some Ifo residents with fever symptoms had traveled to Pyongyang. The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old kindergartener had contact with “alien things” in the city in early April and later tested positive for the Omicron variant.
Calling it “an emergency directive”, the Centers for Epidemic Prevention ordered officials to “vigilantly deal with wind and other climate phenomena and foreign objects arriving by balloons” along the inter-Korean border and trace their sources. It also emphasized that anyone finding “foreign objects” should immediately notify the authorities so that they can be removed.
The reports did not specify what the “foreign things” were. Observers say placing the blame on things flowing across the border is a way of reducing public grievances about South Korea’s handling of the pandemic while reiterating their objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists.
The leaflet campaign was largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalizing him, and no public ballooning efforts were made in early April.
An activist prosecuted for past activities flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the border after stopping for a year in late April. Park Sang-hak ballooned twice in June, switching goods on those efforts to COVID-19 relief items such as masks and painkillers.
Cha Dak Chul, a deputy spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, told reporters on Friday that police were still investigating recent leaflet activities by the activist.
Cha also said that the general consensus among South Korean health officials and experts at the World Health Organization is that infection through contact with the virus on the surface of the material is nearly impossible.
In its previous questionable statements on COVID-19, North Korea also claimed that the virus could be spread through falling snow or migratory birds. Its epidemiological restrictions also included a strict ban on entry into seawater.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said North Korea wants its people to believe that the coronavirus originated from leaflets, US dollars or other materials carried by balloons across the border.
Cheong said North Korea would punish anyone who secretly took South Korean goods. He said North Korea may also try to shoot down incoming South Korean balloons, a move that would prompt South Korea to open fire and intensify hostilities between the countries.
North Korea is furious with the leafleting campaign designed to undermine Kim’s authoritarian regime over a population that has little access to outside information. In 2014, North Korea fired at propaganda balloons flying towards its territory, and South Korea retaliated, although there were no casualties.
North Korea’s latest announcement on the virus refutes an outlandish view that it spread after North Korea reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and saw a military parade and other large-scale protests in Pyongyang in April. But after the programs it increased further. Some outside experts have accused Kim of being responsible in large part for the outbreak because he organized those events to increase public loyalty to the ruling Kim family amid economic difficulties.
After maintaining a widely disputed claim of being coronavirus-free for more than two years, North Korea acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak on May 12, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang were diagnosed with the Omicron variant. it was done.
North Korea has since reported 4.7 million fever cases out of its 26 million population, but has identified only a fraction of them as COVID-19. It said that 73 people have died, which is a very low death rate. Both figures are believed to have been manipulated by North Korea to keep its people alert against the virus and to prevent any political harm to Kim.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.