North Korea on Friday indicated that its COVID-19 outbreak had begun to spread among people familiar with flying balloons from South Korea – a highly dubious argument, seen as 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 critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often resented the activists and South Korean leadership for not stopping them.
Global health officials say the coronavirus is spread by close people inhaling airborne droplets and is more likely to occur in closed, poorly ventilated spaces than outdoors. South Korea’s unification ministry says there is no possibility of South Korean balloons spreading the virus to North Korea.
Relations between the Koreas have been strained amid a long-standing deadlock in US-led diplomacy over persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions for economic and political gains. South Korean and U.S. officials recently said North Korea is poised to conduct its first nuclear test in five years amid intense weapons tests this year.
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State media report that North Korea’s Center for Epidemic Prevention has detected clusters of infection in the town of Ifo, near the southeastern border with South Korea, and that some Ifo residents with fever symptoms have traveled to Pyongyang. The center said an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old kindergartner were exposed to “alien objects” in the town in early April and later tested positive for the omicron variant.
In what became known as the “Emergency Warning”, the Center for Disaster Management instructed authorities to “be vigilant with air and other weather phenomena and alien objects coming through balloons” and trace their origins along the inter-Korean border to the end. It also stressed that if anyone finds “alien objects” they should immediately notify the authorities so that they can be removed.
The reports did not specify what “alien things” were. While reiterating objections to the ballooning activities of North Korean defectors and activists in South Korea, observers say blaming things flying across the border is one way to reduce public complaints about managing the epidemic.
Leaflet campaigns were largely halted after South Korea’s previous liberal government passed a law criminalizing them, and public balloon attempts have not been held since early April.
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An activist who was under investigation for past activities flew balloons carrying propaganda leaflets across the border in late April after suspending them for a year. Park Song-hak floated balloons twice in June, shifting cargo to COVID-19 relief items such as masks and painkillers.
Activist police are still investigating the activities of the recent pamphlets, Southern Integration Ministry deputy spokesman Cha Dak Chul told reporters on Friday.
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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, Cha said.
In its previous skeptical statements on COVID-19, North Korea also stated that the virus could be spread by snow or migratory birds. Its epidemic-related restrictions also include strict bans on entering seawater.
Chiong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said North Korea wants its people to believe that the coronavirus originated from pamphlets, US dollars or other materials carried across the border by balloons.
Cheong said North Korea would severely punish anyone who secretly took such 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 fire back and sharply escalate hostilities between the countries.
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North Korea was outraged by the pamphlet campaign because it was designed to undermine Kim’s rule over a population with limited access to outside information. In 2014, North Korea opened fire on propaganda balloons flying towards its territory, and South Korea retaliated with no casualties.
North Korea’s latest announcement on the virus comes after it briefly reopened its northern border with China to cargo in January and further escalated following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April. Some outside experts have blamed Kim for the outbreak largely because he organized the events to bolster public loyalty to the ruling Kim family amid economic hardship.
After more than two years of maintaining a widely disputed claim that it was coronavirus-free, North Korea on May 12 admitted to the outbreak of COVID-19, saying an unspecified number of people in Pyongyang were suffering from the Omicron variant.
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North Korea has reported 4.7 million flu cases out of its 26 million population, but only a fraction of them have been identified as COVID-19. 73 people died, which is a very low mortality rate. It is believed that North Korea manipulated these two figures to keep its people alert to the virus and to prevent any political harm to Kim.