Balloons from South Korea have been blamed for a Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea, with two people in the border area said to be showing symptoms after touching "alien things coming by wind" from the South.
According to a report in the Korea Times, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old child at Ipho-ri in Kumgang County were its first official Covid-19 patients.
Citing health authorities reports, the broadcaster said people living in border areas should be cautious of balloons and "the things attached to the balloons." However, there was no mention of what they touched.
It said several people had travelled from the area of Ipho-ri to the capital city in mid-April and there was a sharp increase of fever cases among their contacts.
The Times report said the warning was in line with North Korea's previous call for its citizens to be careful of the virus carried by anti-regime leaflets and other climate phenomena and balloons from the South.
South Korean human rights activists often send such materials across the border.
The North Korean broadcaster had said that a sharp increase in fever cases was reported in the area before the disease spread to the rest of the country.
A former doctor from North Korea told the Korea Times that such a reaction from Pyongyang had been expected since the start of the outbreak.
"North Korean leaders always look for something to blame for their faults. It turned out to be the balloons this time," Choi Jung-hoon, a former infectious disease doctor from North Korea.
He believes that the outbreak started after the Omicron variant first entered into North Korea from China, just as Pyongyang was preparing a massive military parade on April 25.
"For an event of such a scale, North Korea needs lots of things and it usually gets them from China. The variant probably entered the North, as many crossed that border to transport the equipment and products they needed," Choi said.
He said since North Korea cannot blame China, its most important ally, authorities there probably wrote scenarios to create a different story.
In South Korea, many activist groups have been promoting human rights for North Korea. They are usually led by defectors from the northern neighbour.
Recently, the human right group Fighters for a Free North Korea said it sent 20 big balloons carrying painkillers, vitamin pills and masks on June 28 across the western border that separates the two nations.
Responding to the North Korean allegations, the South Korean Ministry of Unification rejected the idea that the source of infection was the balloons, citing assessment of health authorities in the South and other countries.
"We believe there is no possibility of Covid-19 transmissions to North Korea from leaflets sent from the South," Cha Duck-chul, a deputy spokesman for the ministry in a press briefing.
Meanwhile, KCNA said the daily number of suspected new Covid-19 cases in North Korea was about 2,500 and there were over 3 430 recoveries on July 4.
Since late April, it said the total number of fever cases was 4,757,620, of which more than 99.9 per cent have recovered and the rest are still being treated.