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North Korea suggests balloons flown from South brought COVID-19

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – North Korea suggested yesterday its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea – a highly questionable claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible amid increasing tensions over its nuclear programme.

Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and North Korea often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.

Global health authorities said the coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who inhale airborne droplets. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there was no chance South Korean balloons might have spread the virus to North Korea.

The state media report said North Korea’s epidemic prevention centre found infection clusters in the town of Ipho near its southeastern border with South Korea and that some Ipho residents with feverish symptoms travelled to Pyongyang. The centre said an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year kindergartener had contact with “alien things” in the town in early April and later tested positive for the Omicron variant.

North Korean defectors release balloons carrying leaflets in South Korea’s Paju, near the border with North Korea. PHOTO: AP