North Korea, ever the source of strange headlines, has an … interesting theory about how COVID-19 made it into the country. According to official news agency KCNA, the virus was brought into the North not by travelers from elsewhere, but by “alien things” entering the country from the air.
Okay – it’s not as weird as it sounds. As bizarre as some of the official beliefs of the hermit state may be, they’re not actually blaming E.T. for the coronavirus pandemic. That would be daft.
They’re blaming balloons.
In an “emergency instruction” broadcast by KCNA this Friday, the North Korean epidemic prevention center told officials to “vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders.”
For those familiar with inter-Korean relations, it’s a pretty clear attempt to shift blame for the COVID-19 wave currently hitting the country onto their neighbors to the South.
“It’s typical North Korean propaganda, attempting to turn its problem over its COVID outbreak into fear and hatred of South Korea,” North Korean defector and activist Lee Min-bok told the New York Times. “Its regime fears outside news spreading among its people more than anything else.”
It is true that, for decades, balloons carrying pro-democracy and anti-Pyongyang – and, more rarely, anti-democracy and pro-Pyongyang – propaganda have been sent over the border between South and North Korea, although the practice is officially banned by both governments. For obvious reasons, authorities in North Korea have tried to dissuade their population from receiving these messages over the years, claiming, for example, that balloons from the South are poisoned.
As COVID-19 ravages the isolated and ill-prepared country, therefore, it’s easy to see how the two problems might dovetail. KCNA claimed Friday that the first cases of COVID in the North came about after an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old child touched “unidentified materials” in the eastern county of Kumgang in early April. Both went on to develop symptoms of COVID-19, and subsequently tested positive for the illness.
“A sharp increase of fever cases was witnessed among their contacts and that a group of fevered persons emerged in the area … for the first time,” KCNA said. It’s thought that North Korean references to “fever” rather than COVID cases is due to the lack of widespread testing in the country.
But there are a few holes in this theory – and South Korean officials and experts have been keen to point them out. “It's hard to believe North Korea's claim, scientifically speaking, given that the possibility of the virus spreading through objects is quite low,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Reuters.
On top of that, the timing doesn’t match: KCNA said that these first two cases occurred in early April, but the first time that balloons were sent across the border this year is thought to be in late April, the Guardian reports. And since COVID has been known to have reached North Korea, those balloons that have been sent over the border have sometimes contained medical supplies instead of propaganda.
Of course, there is another possibility: that COVID entered North Korea after border lockdowns were eased for trade with China. The first cases reported in the North came only a few months after.
But despite being more feasible, this solution will likely be politically uncomfortable for Pyongyang, explained Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University.
"If they concluded the virus was from China, they would have had to tighten quarantine measures on the border area in a further setback to North Korea-China trade," he told Reuters.