North Korea has said people spread COVID across the country after coming into contact with “alien things” along the border with South Korea.
After claiming for years to be one of only three COVID-free countries in the world, North Korea registered its first COVID case in May, and has since recorded millions of cases.
On Friday, state media claimed that an official investigation had shown the virus spread throughout the country after an 18-year-old soldier and a five-year-old came into contact with the BA.2 omicron variant “in a hill around barracks and residential quarters” near the demilitarised zone that separates the North from the South.
In a statement in English, the Korean Central News Agency warned people to "vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders."
South Korea’s unification ministry responded by saying that there is “no possibility” that the virus was transmitted in this way.
Balloons released by activists are sometimes released across the border from the South, carrying leaflets or information on flash drives, in the hope of showing people in North Korea about life in the rest of the world.
North Korea has been trying to crack down on these balloons for years, and has repeatedly terminated dialogue with the South over what it sees as incursions into its territory.
North Korea’s previous claim that it had zero COVID cases was met with global scepticism. It had refused offers of vaccines from other countries and maintained that it had not been affected by the pandemic.
Health experts fear the virus is having a devastating impact on North Korea. Its population is malnourished and impoverished, and even basic medications are hard to come by.