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North Korea blames COVID-19 outbreak on balloons, 'alien things' from across border

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North Korea blames COVID-19 outbreak on balloons, 'alien things' from across border
North Korea claimed Friday that it traced the source of its first officially reported COVID-19 outbreak to "alien things" from South Korea found near the border of the DMZ. Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, July 1 (UPI) -- North Korea claimed its first officially reported COVID-19 cases were caused by "alien things" found near the border with South Korea, state media reported Friday, in an apparent attempt to blame the outbreak on activists floating leaflets and other items on balloons over the demilitarized zone.

Korean Central News Agency wrote that health officials traced the initial cases of COVID-19 in mid-April to an area of Kumgang county in the eastern province of Kangwon, located just north of the DMZ.

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"It was known that an 18-year-old soldier surnamed Kim and a 5-year-old kindergartener surnamed Wi contacted with alien things in a hill around barracks and residential quarters," KCNA reported.

Authorities issued instructions "to vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders," the article continued.

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North Korea announced its first COVID-19 outbreak in mid-May, after more than two years of claiming it had no infections under a strict border closure.

The secretive regime has long slammed the practice of defectors sending balloons carrying propaganda leaflets, cash, USB drives and other items across the border from the South. Pyongyang severed all communications with Seoul and blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in June 2020 over what it called South Korea's failure to rein in the activists.

Seoul immediately dismissed the North's claim on Friday, pointing to consensus among health officials that COVID-19 spreads through the air via droplets and respiratory particles from an infected person.

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"As far as we know, there have been no officially verified cases of coronavirus infection via postal or other materials," unification ministry spokesman Cha Duck-chul said during a press briefing, news agency Yonhap reported.

The KCNA report comes one day after activist group Fighters for Free North Korea told reporters in an email that it sent 20 balloons carrying COVID-19 aid to the North, including 20,000 masks, 80,000 pain relief tablets and 30,000 vitamin C pills.

It was the second time in less than a month that the organization, led by high-profile defector Park Sang-hak, sent medical supplies in response to the spread of the coronavirus in North Korea.

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The South Korean government, under the administration of then-President Moon Jae-in, passed a controversial anti-leafleting law in December 2020, which drew criticism from human rights and free speech groups at home and abroad. Moon was accused of capitulating to the North in an effort to improve inter-Korean ties.

Park, who is standing trial for defying the prohibition last year, said his group also floated a million propaganda leaflets into North Korea in April.

The administration of current President Yoon Suk-yeol appears less inclined to enforce the ban, with new Unification Minister Kwon Young-se calling the law "problematic from a constitutional perspective" ahead of his confirmation.

On Monday, Kwon met with international media and said that his ministry "does definitely understand the sentiment" of the defector groups, but asked them "to refrain from those provocative activities for the time being."

North Korea on Friday reported 4,570 new daily cases of what it describes as an unspecified fever. Case counts have declined steadily since peaking at nearly 400,000 on May 15, days after officials reported an "explosive" outbreak of COVID-19 and declared a national emergency.

Overall, Pyongyang has reported 4.74 million fever cases but has only 73 deaths -- a fatality rate far lower than anywhere else in the world and one that experts doubt, as North Korea's population remains almost entirely unvaccinated.

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