SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Weeks after acknowledging its first coronavirus infections, North Korea appears to be blaming the outbreak on balloons sent by defector-activists in South Korea.
North Korean officials said Friday they traced the outbreak to an inter-Korean border region, where an 18-year-old soldier and a 5-year-old child came into contact with "alien things" in early April.
The statement, published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, did not specify what the objects were, but later warned residents to be on the lookout for balloons and other "alien things" in the area.
North Korean officials have long warned the coronavirus could enter the country through novel means, including through migratory birds, snow, air pollution or anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets sent by South Korean activists.
Earlier this week, South Korea-based defector Park Sang-hak said he launched 20 balloons with COVID-19 medical supplies, including masks, pain relievers and vitamin pills.
North Korea, an authoritarian state that prevents its citizens from accessing outside information, despises the balloon launches. In the past, it has used them as an opportunity to direct anger, and pressure, at South Korea.
Friday's statement did not direct any anger toward South Korea. But some analysts said it could be part of an effort to keep North Koreans away from border areas.
On May 12, North Korea acknowledged for the first time that it is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The admission came more than two years into a worldwide coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, North Korea has said its COVID-19 situation has vastly improved, though outside experts emphasize that even Pyongyang may not know the true extent of the outbreak.
Instead of reporting confirmed coronavirus cases, North Korea has posted daily counts of "fevered persons," possibly because the country does not have enough COVID-19 testing supplies.
In total, North Korea has reported 4.74 million fever cases but only 73 deaths. If the fever cases were counted as confirmed COVID-19 cases, that would mean North Korea has achieved the world's lowest COVID-19 fatality rate by far.
North Korea has an antiquated and poorly resourced medical system. It has rejected most international offers of pandemic aid, though it is thought to have recently accepted some vaccines from China.
In a statement Thursday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry slammed U.S. and Western offers of COVID-19 aid, calling them a "clumsy farce" and insisting that its own pandemic situation is rapidly improving.
In an unusually blunt statement last month, the World Health Organization said it assumes North Korea's COVID-19 situation "is getting worse, not better."