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South Korean group releases balloons northbound amid hostilities

SEOUL – A South Korean activist said Thursday he had launched more giant balloons laden with COVID-19 relief supplies toward North Korea, days after the North vowed to deal strictly with such activities and made a highly questionable claim that they were one source of the virus.

South Korean experts doubt North Korea’s moves to blame South Korean balloons, saying the intention may be to stoke anti-South Korea sentiment and ease public complaints about the handling of the outbreak. The coronavirus is spread by people in close contact who breathe airborne droplets, and experts agree that spreading the virus from surfaces is virtually impossible.

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector-turned-activist, said his group levitated 20 balloons carrying 20,000 masks and tens of thousands of vitamin C and antipyretic pills out of a South Korean border town on Wednesday. He said he ballooned similar relief supplies across the inter-Korean border twice in the past month.

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Park previously flew balloons to distribute anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets, US one-dollar bills and USB sticks containing information about the outside world. But he said he will now focus on sending medical supplies because the North Koreans desperately need them.

Since North Korea in May Admitted to an omicron outbreak of the virus, state media said about 4.8 million North Koreans developed fevers but only 74 died. Experts doubt the figures are accurate and speculate that the release of an extremely low death toll is to prevent political damage to leader Kim Jong Un.

Last week, state media said the outbreak had been traced to residents who had contact with “alien things” in a town near the border, and that authorities had been instructed to “be vigilant about extraterrestrial things caused by wind and other climate phenomena and balloons are coming. ”

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However, some outside experts believe the Omicron variant made its way into North Korea when it briefly reopened its northern border with China to cargo traffic in January. Observers say the virus spread further when many North Koreans traveled to Pyongyang in April for massive public events marking state anniversaries and returned home.

“The one who spread COVID-19 is Kim Jong Un. But since the public mood is really bad, he’s trying to put all the blame on us,” Park said. “How can materials spread COVID-19?”

Park is on trial over a past leafleting campaign under a controversial South Korean law criminalizing such activities that went into effect last year.

Park said he has not been contacted by authorities about his recent balloon rides. Police said Thursday they were investigating Park’s recent balloon launches but declined to give more details.

North Korea is extremely sensitive to outside attempts to criticize Kim’s rule towards 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 demolished an empty South Korean liaison office in the north to express anger at leafleting.

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/07/07/s-korean-group-floats-balloons-toward-north-amid-animosities/ South Korean group releases balloons northbound amid hostilities

Sarah Y. Kim

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