By HYUNG-JIN KIM – Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean activist said Thursday he launched more huge balloons carrying COVID-19 relief items toward North Korea, days after the North pledged to stand firm against such activities and made a highly questionable claim that they were a source of the virus.
South Korean experts doubt North Korea’s moves to blame South Korean balloons and say the intention may be to incite anti-Korean sentiments and assuage public complaints about its handling of the epidemic. The coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who inhale airborne droplets, and the consensus of experts is that spreading the virus from surfaces is virtually impossible.
Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector turned activist, said his group floated 20 balloons carrying 20,000 masks and tens of thousands of vitamin C and fever tablets from a South Korean border town on Wednesday. He said he sent similar aid items by balloon across the inter-Korean border twice in the past month.
One of the balloons carried a large sign calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “hypocrite” and condemning him for holding South Korean activists responsible for the virus outbreak. But Park said the balloons did not carry what he had been sending for years – small but numerous anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets, US dollar bills and USB drives containing information about the world outside. He said he would now focus on sending medical relief items as the North Koreans urgently need them.
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Since North Korea admitted an outbreak of the omicron virus in May, its state media has said about 4.8 million North Koreans have developed a fever, but only 74 have died from it. Experts doubt the figures are accurate and speculate that his disclosure of an extremely low death toll is designed to avoid political damage to Kim.
Last week, state media said the outbreak had been traced to residents who had contact with “extraterrestrial things” in a town near the border and that authorities had been ordered to ” vigilantly deal with extraterrestrial things from wind and other weather phenomena and balloons. ”
Some outside experts, however, believe the omicron variant entered North Korea when it briefly reopened its northern border with China for cargo traffic in January. Observers say the virus spread further when many North Koreans traveled to Pyongyang for massive public events marking state anniversaries in April and returned home.
“The one who spread COVID-19 is Kim Jong Un. But since the feelings of the public are really bad, he tries to put all the blame on us,” Park said. “How can materials spread COVID-19? 19?”
Park is on trial for a previous leafleting campaign under a controversial South Korean law criminalizing such activities that came into effect last year.
Park said he has not been contacted by authorities about his recent hot air ballooning activities. Police said Thursday they were investigating Park’s recent balloon launches, but declined to provide further details.
North Korea is extremely sensitive to outside attempts to criticize the Kim regime to people who have little access to information from foreign sources. In 2014 North Korea fired on balloons flying towards its territory and in 2020 it destroyed an empty liaison office built by South Korea in the North to express its anger over the leaflets.
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