North Korea blames balloons from South for COVID spread

Wednesday, 20 July 2022 (11:02 IST)
North Korean defectors in the South have dismissed accusations from Pyongyang that balloons floated over the border carrying medicines, cash and propaganda messages are the cause of the coronavirus pandemic in the North.

Speaking to DW, the founder of Fighters for a Free North Korea said Pyongyang's claims are "nonsense," and merely an effort to deflect blame away from the regime's incompetence in dealing with the pandemic and a critical shortage of medicines for civilians.

'Malignant fever'

North Korean health authorities admitted their first case of COVID-19 on May 12, more than two years after the regime sealed the nation's borders in what it said was an effort to stop the virus from gaining a foothold in the country.

Since then, almost 25 million cases have been reported, although only a few patients have officially tested positive for the virus.

On May 19, state media reported 262,270 new cases of an unidentified "fever" and one death toll, bringing the official death toll to 63.

As of May 15, there were 240,459 patients treated for the "malignant virus" in Pyongyang — around 7% of the city's population, Korean Central Television reported.

Pyongyang says 99.98% of its 4.77 million fever patients since late April have fully recovered, but because of an apparent lack of testing, it has not published any data for those who tested positive.

On July 1, North Korean authorities announced they had found the source of the epidemic in the North, tracing the route of the infection back to the small village of Ipho-ri, some 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.

'Alien things coming by wind'

North Korean state media attributed the COVID-19 outbreak in the country to "alien things coming by wind," and landing close to the border with the South.

Korean Central News Agency said the source of the outbreak was an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child who came into contact with objects near the border.

State-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper wrote that the soldier and child "came into contact with alien things on a hill close to a barracks and residential quarters in Ipho-ri in April." The paper urged citizens to "deal vigilantly" with the "alien things," as well as "other climate phenomena and balloons."

The term "alien things" is understood to mean balloons sent over the border from the South.

Medical experts have rejected claims that the balloons are capable of transferring coronavirus.

Why Pyongyang fears balloons from South Korea

And Park Sang-hak, 54, who fled from the North in 2000 and is the founder of Fighters for a Free North Korea, said his group never sent any balloons over the border in early April as the winds were blowing in the wrong direction.

"We have sent balloons seven times so far this year and we are planning more launches in the near future," Park told DW. The last launch was on July 6, when 20 large balloons filled with helium were released from a site west of Seoul carrying 30,000 vitamin C tablets, 70,000 tablets to reduce fevers and 20,000 face masks.

The balloons also carried leaflets and banners suspended beneath them denying Pyongyang's claim that the virus was being spread by the balloons and encouraging people to help themselves to the medicines they carried.

The banners read, "We denounced Kim Jong Un, a hypocrite who let the vicious infectious disease from China spread and put the blame on anti-North leaflets."

"They are telling people the balloons are dangerous as they do not want people to pick them up and read the propaganda leaflets," Park said. "They want to control what people think and hide the truth about how the virus has spread, because there is not enough medicine or health care."

Concerns over retaliation

The balloons have caught Pyongyang's attention, with the weekly Tongil Shinbo condemning the launches and warning that the response would "exceed the destruction" of the North-South liaison office that took place in the border town of Kaesong in June 2020.

Previously, the Kim Jong Un regime has warned it would fire across the border at any groups it detects launching balloons to cross the border.

"They take this very seriously because the leaflets always criticize Kim Jong Un, and that is not acceptable in North Korea," said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul. "They are very sensitive and any attack on their ruling family is considered to be treason.

"They have made threats on several occasions in the past, but they have not actually fired over the border and into the South yet, so let's hope that situation continues," she said. "The problem is that they are very unpredictable, and it is impossible to say that they will definitely not fire at the launch sites. We just have to hope."

Park said he will "continue to send balloons and to tell people in the North the truth."

"I will stop, but only when the people of North Korea are set free from Kim Jong Un and his family."

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