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South, North agree to temporarily close their liaison office

Jan 31,2020
South and North Korea agreed to temporarily shut down their liaison office in Kaesong until all threats from the Wuhan coronavirus are relieved, said Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Thursday.

The decision to close the two Koreas’ sole fixed communication office was reached through mutual agreement, a ministry official said, after North Korea stopped around a dozen South Korean personnel from entering the country to get to work at the office Thursday morning.

The entry ban appears to have been enforced due to the North’s “measures to prevent the spread of the new strain of coronavirus,” the official said, as part of a series of tough sanitary policies introduced by the regime aimed at averting the deadly epidemic from reaching the country.

Seoul withdrew all 58 of its personnel at the office by 7 p.m. on Thursday, the ministry announced in a later briefing.

In lieu of the channel being temporarily closed, a fixed hotline and fax line will be installed between Seoul and Pyongyang to conduct regular liaison work.

This is the first time that the inter-Korean liaison office will be shut down over a disease-related issue, and marks a major step up from the North’s request to South Korea on Tuesday that its personnel wear masks when crossing the border.

“It is true that the North’s recent actions have been unusual when compared to its behavior during the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] epidemics,” the ministry official said. “With regards to the new virus, North Korea has proclaimed an emergency quarantine system and is taking reinforced measures [toward disease prevention].”

South Korea has six confirmed cases of coronavirus, which as of Thursday has infected 7,711 people in China, killing 170 of them, according to Beijing’s official tally.

According to Radio Free Asia on Wednesday, North Korea has ceased issuing visas to all Chinese nationals and other foreigners coming from China beginning this week, and has been taking steps to restrict trade on its northern border with China. A Unification Ministry official told reporters on Tuesday that all land and air transportation between the two countries has effectively stopped.

The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang also posted on its social media that the North Korean Foreign Ministry notified all foreigners - including those working in diplomatic missions and international organizations - who enter the country through China will be subject to health inspections at a quarantined state facility for a month.

The virus has also put a damper on humanitarian activity in the North. One aid group, the American Friends Service Committee, said in a statement to the Voice of America Thursday that their trip to North Korea “has been temporarily postponed due to the coronavirus” and that they are planning to send their delegation there in the springtime, in April.

These series of drastic quarantine measures by Pyongyang testifies to the regime’s anxiety that the new and highly contagious virus strain from China has the potential to wreak havoc on its fragile and inadequate health care system.

North Korea is far from being equipped with the medical resources or logistic capacity to deal with a major disease outbreak. The country continues to struggle with various infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and hepatitis B, with some estimates showing that five in every 1,000 North Koreans have tuberculosis.

State media in particular has been active in raising awareness about the coronavirus among its citizens, with the Rodong Sinmun, the official publication of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, publishing a rare report on the virus on its front page on Thursday.

“[The government] has been taking emergency measures to effectively stop the contagion of the new-type coronavirus,” read the article. “The [government] has elevated the sanitary quarantine system to a national emergency quarantine system.”

Such high-profile coverage of the disease has been deemed highly unusual by observers of the North, given that the regime typically reserves the first page of the Rodong Sinmun to cover the activities of its leader, Kim Jong-un, or key political events and propaganda. Published side by side with the coronavirus article was a report about the regime’s “breakthrough” policy, calling on officials to brace for economic hardship going forward.

By suspending tourism and trade with China, its largest economic partner by a large margin, the regime appears to consider any economic repercussions caused by measures to prevent the spread of the disease as secondary to stopping an outbreak.

“The blockade [on China] owing to the Wuhan disease is likely to lead to further economic difficulties as trade dips and the number of Chinese visitors diminish,” said Lim Soo-ho, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy. “[The North] is very likely to resort to concentrating on maximizing internal growth as a result.”

As to its relations with South Korea, it is unclear when the liaison office could open up again given the persistent tension pervading Pyongyang’s deadlocked denuclearization negotiations with Washington.

When asked about what conditions regarding the coronavirus could allow a resumption of activity at the office, Seoul’s Unification Ministry official said it was too early to make a determination on when this could be.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]