SEOUL — North Korea suggested on Friday that the coronavirus had entered the country on foreign objects from South Korea, saying that its first reported outbreak had begun in villages near the countries’ border after people there touched “alien things.”
North Korea did not directly blame the outbreak on the South. But its State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters warned its people to “vigilantly deal with alien things” brought across the border by “balloons,” wind or “other climate phenomena.”
For years, activists in South Korea, mostly defectors from the North, have sent balloons across the border loaded with leaflets denouncing the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as well as dollar bills, miniature Bibles and USB drives containing news from the outside world. North Korea, which tightly controls access to information, has bristled at these campaigns and even tried to shoot balloons down.
South Korea’s previous government outlawed the launches last year, on the grounds that they provoked the North.
On Friday, South Korea said it was impossible for the balloon launches to have brought Covid-19 into the North, saying it had consulted disease-control experts on the question. Activists who have sent balloons across the heavily armed border, known as the Demilitarized Zone, accused the North of shifting the blame for its outbreak to the South, and of trying to frighten its people into avoiding the leaflets.
“It’s typical North Korean propaganda, attempting to turn its problem over its Covid outbreak into fear and hatred of South Korea,” said one such activist, Lee Min-bok, a North Korean defector. “Its regime fears outside news spreading among its people more than anything else.”
After two years of claiming to have no Covid cases, North Korea declared a “maximum emergency” on May 12, saying that an outbreak had begun in late April and locking down all of its cities and counties. So far, it has reported 4.7 million cases of people developing Covid-like symptoms, such as a high fever. North Korea said on June 15 that 73 people had died of the disease, but it has since provided no update on fatalities.
Outside experts consider the North’s data untrustworthy, in part because the country does not have enough testing kits and laboratories to accurately track a major outbreak. In recent weeks, it has claimed to have the virus under control; it said its daily count of suspected new infections had dropped to 4,570 on Friday, from a high of 390,000 in mid-May.
The North said on Friday that it had conducted an investigation to trace the source of the outbreak, concluding that it had started in Ipho-ri, a southeastern district near the border. A soldier and a 5-year-old child there tested positive for Covid-19 after making contact with “alien things” in early April, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
The virus later spread across the country, with several symptomatic people from Ipho-ri arriving in Pyongyang in mid-April, the agency said. The government urged North Koreans to “instantly” report objects crossing the border and said pandemic control workers should “strictly remove those things.”
When the North first reported its outbreak, South Korean officials speculated that the virus might have come in across the country’s border with China, which is longer and less tightly guarded than the Demilitarized Zone.
But “North Korea’s announcement may be enough to make its people suspect that the Covid-19 virus spread through the leaflets, dollar bills and other goods North Korean defectors in the South sent to the North by balloons,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
The announcement could also be a sign that the North will soon crack down on soldiers and residents near the border who collect the leaflets, Mr. Cheong said.
Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector living in South Korea, claimed to have sent a million leaflets across the border by balloon in April alone. Last month, he said, he sent balloons loaded with medical-style masks, vitamins and fever-reducing pills to help North Koreans fight Covid.
He certainly did not send the coronavirus, Mr. Park said.
“I am not crazy enough to think of spreading the virus to our fellow Korean people in the North,” he said. “But I would not mind sending the virus to Kim Jong-un, if I can.”