North Korea blames “alien things” near border with south for COVID outbreak

People watch a television broadcasting a news report on the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in North Korea at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, May 17, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

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SEOUL, July 1 (Reuters) – North Korea claimed on Friday that the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak began with patients near the border with South Korea touching “alien things”, apparently blaming the wave of infections in the isolated Land shifted to the neighbor.

Announcing the results of an investigation, the North ordered people to “be vigilant about foreign things coming into the areas along the demarcation line and borders by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons,” official KCNA news agency said.

The agency didn’t mention South Korea directly, but North Korean defectors and activists have been flying balloons from the south across the heavily fortified border for decades, carrying leaflets and humanitarian aid.

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South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said there was “no way” the virus would enter the north through leaflets sent across the border.

According to KCNA, an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old kindergartener who came into contact with the unidentified materials “in a hillside around barracks and residential neighborhoods” in eastern Kumgang County in early April showed symptoms and later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The KCNA said all other cases of fever reported in the country through mid-April were due to other diseases, but did not elaborate.

“It’s hard to believe North Korea’s claim from a scientific point of view because the chances of the virus spreading through objects are pretty low,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of people contracting COVID through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is generally considered low, although it can be done.

The North also said the first two patients touched the unspecified objects in the eastern city in early April, but the first time a defector group is known to have sent balloons across the border this year was from late April western region of Gimpo. Continue reading

The North’s first admission of a COVID outbreak came months after it eased border lockdowns enforced since early 2020 to resume freight train operations with China.

But it would have been difficult for Pyongyang to point the finger at China, said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies.

“If they had concluded that the virus originated in China, they would have had to tighten quarantine measures in the border area, which would mean another setback for North Korea-China trade,” Lim said.

The North has claimed the COVID wave has shown signs of abating, although experts suspect underreporting in figures released by government-controlled media.

North Korea on Friday reported 4,570 more people with fever symptoms, bringing the total number of fever patients registered since late April to 4.74 million.

Pyongyang has announced daily the number of fever patients without specifying whether they had contracted COVID, apparently due to a lack of testing kits.

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Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith; Edited by Leslie Adler, Richard Chang and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.