North Korea said Friday it had discovered the source of its ongoing outbreak of COVID-19: residents who came into contact with “alien things” along its border with South Korea.
The country’s state media said North Korean health authorities believe the outbreak began when two people — an 18-year-old soldier and 5-year-old child — were exposed to the virus by balloons. Pyongyang said the balloons were flown from South Korea, a deeply unlikely method of transmission but one experts say is in line with the North’s efforts to keep up the antagonistic relationship between the two nations, Yonhap News reported.
The country issued a directive that authorities “vigilantly deal with alien things coming by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons in the areas along the demarcation line and borders.”
Activists in South Korea have flown balloons across the border with North Korea to distribute propaganda leaflets. But the South Korean government quickly moved to say even if balloons had reached the north, there is no chance they may have spread the virus, The Associated Press reports.
The country, which had largely succeeded in keeping the coronavirus at bay by effectively sequestering itself from the rest of the world, announced its first official COVID-19 case on May 12. Experts say cases have since exploded across the nation, which is largely unvaccinated against the virus.
North Korea has now reported about 4.7 million cases of fever, but only a small fraction of those have been identified as COVID-19. The nation says just 73 people have died from the disease, an extremely low fatality rate that would be unlikely given North Korea’s health system.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has described the coronavirus outbreak as the greatest “turmoil to fall on our country since the founding,” according to state media.
Still, North Korea on Thursday rejected offers of humanitarian aid from the United States. The country’s foreign ministry said any offers were merely a “scheme to realize a foul political purpose,” Yonhap reported. (The Washington Post notes the country is suspected to have received some aid from China).
“The U.S. is trying to evade the international society’s criticism by speaking of humanitarian aid while attempting to isolate and squeeze us to death,” state media said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.