SEOUL — North Korea identified the supposed source of its coronavirus outbreak for the first time, claiming Friday that people contracted the virus after coming into contact with “alien things” along its border with South Korea.
The state media called on North Korean authorities to “vigilantly deal with alien things” coming across the border, warning of items such as balloons carrying propaganda leaflets that human rights advocates release from the southern side, with hopes of spreading information, flash drives and cash.
While the announcement did not explicitly attack South Korea, it suggested Pyongyang is looking to blame Seoul as the new president takes a harder line toward the North.
“The coronavirus crisis in North Korea gave rise to a wave of public discontent and frustration. Pyongyang is shifting the blame onto South Korea to keep it from being directed at its leadership,” said Cho Han-bum, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
On Thursday, North Korea rejected efforts by the United States and other Western countries to provide coronavirus aid to help the impoverished, largely unvaccinated nation through its public health crisis. In a statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry called the offers of aid a “clumsy farce” and “empty talk.”
Since May, North Korea reported more than 4.7 million cases of “fever” symptoms, afflicting nearly a fifth of its population of 25 million. But just three weeks after reporting its first cases, it claimed the numbers had dropped dramatically, reporting a rapid fall in new instances of “fever” — an apparent euphemism for potential coronavirus cases because the country lacks testing capacity.
This week, a U.N. investigator questioned North Korea’s professed progress in managing the covid situation, raising concerns about the lack of diagnostic capacity and other health resources, as well as a worsening food and humanitarian crisis.
“From state media, information appears to mean everything is under control,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. “But I continue to be extremely concerned about what would be the real consequences of the outbreak in the country.”
North Korea is suspected to have received some medical aid from China since its outbreak, according to South Korean reports.
North Korea has previously warned of the virus spreading through objects and animals, even though public health experts have said the coronavirus rarely spreads through surface transmission. In early June, North Korea said it is monitoring the movements of migratory birds as part of its anti-coronavirus measures.
Experts say the virus probably entered the country during a brief opening of trade activity earlier this year along North Korea’s border with China. There were reports of cases near the North Korea-China border before Pyongyang’s official announcement in May.
But North Korea’s statement on Friday suggests leader Kim Jong Un is looking to blame his southern neighbor.
“North Korea basically held South Korea accountable for spread of the coronavirus, and defector groups’ leaflet campaigns will be met with a very hard-line response from North Korea going forward,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
North Korea’s totalitarian regime is extremely sensitive about outside activists’ propaganda efforts to erode the country’s information blockade. It blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its territory in 2020 after Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader, lashed out at the leafleteers and threatened retaliation.
On Friday, North Korea called on its citizens to beware of activity along the border and to report incidents immediately so that authorities can “deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons … and trace their source to the last.”