North Korea has drastically restricted travel to China from its territory in a bid to stem the spread of a new strand of the deadly coronavirus, multiple sources said Thursday, in an expansion of a previously-imposed ban on tourism into the country that will now impact NGOs, international organizations, and diplomats.
A note verbale distributed to personnel in the North Korean capital obtained by NK News informed them they would not be permitted to leave the country via China for the time being. A semi-regular route to Vladivostok is believed to still be operational.
“In order to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, we inform all foreign diplomats and international organization representatives in the DPRK that travel to China is temporarily completely forbidden,” the note, distributed by the Protocol Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), said.
NK News learned earlier in the day from an official with an NGO in Pyongyang, who asked not to be quoted directly, that DPRK authorities had informed them that all travelers coming from China would not be permitted to enter for the time being.
Others earlier in the day were not so sure, however, saying they had not received any such communication from the central government and were unable to confirm any new restrictions.
“We at [the] UN system have not yet received an official communication, so we cannot comment on any speculation,” Hassan Mohtashami, a representative at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP), said in an email.
Tour company operators earlier this week announced that North Korean partners had informed them that tourism to the country would be suspended indefinitely, in an attempt to stem the outbreak of a virus which has as of Thursday affected over 500 people and resulted in over a dozen deaths.
The virus is believed to have its origins in a market in Wuhan in central China, with Beijing having now effectively suspended all travel out of and into the city.
Speaking to NK News on Wednesday, one tour company operator said he had informed all customers with planned travel to the DPRK in the coming days of the new rules.
“Basically we informed them that they are not going to be able to go, so they [can] make other plans, cancel their whole trips, each on[e] different actually,” Simon Cockerell, General Manager at the Koryo Tours company, said.
It’s unclear how long the shutdown will last, especially given the continued uncertainty surrounding the new virus’s origins and the best way to treat it.
“The word is it will last as long as the outbreak,” another tourism industry insider said, speaking to NK News on condition of anonymity due to sensitivities around speaking to media, adding that North Koreans working abroad in China have also been barred from entering the country for the time being.
Chinese tour companies have also reportedly been informed by DPRK partners that all tours are suspended for the time being and until the state is able to prepare “precautionary measures.”
And while multiple sources told NK News that a group of humanitarian workers and diplomats had arrived in Pyongyang from Beijing on Wednesday, it now appears that North Korean authorities are taking even more drastic steps to stem the outbreak.
North Korea’s state media is yet to report on the new rules, though the country’s Korean Central Television (KCTV) carried a segment on Tuesday stating that the country was working with the World Health Organization (WHO) in combating the virus.
The WHO is yet to respond to requests for further details on its cooperation with the North Korean state on stemming the virus, reported on earlier in the week in a KCTV segment on the outbreak.
“Working closely with the WHO, we are intensifying hygienic education activities regarding the new malignant virus, as well as strongly carrying out activities nationwide to head off [the virus],” office director Kang Chol Jin of the Ministry of Public Health’s (MPH) State Hygienic Control Board told the state-run broadcaster.
Kang described the coronavirus as “causing severe concerns around the world,” saying that “the malignant virus newly occurring this time is entirely different than past coronaviruses” like SARS and MERS.
ECHOES OF THE EBOLA CRISIS
This week’s move echoes similar steps taken by DPRK authorities during an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, which saw tourism to the country put on hold for over four months and visiting NGOs and diplomats required to undergo a 21-day quarantine period before being allowed to enter.
“We did not have any contact for three weeks,” Thomas Fisler, a former Resident Representative to North Korea who was quarantined twice under those measures, told NK News. “The restrictions were quite dramatic.”
“A country like this one has no problems enforcing these rigorous measures. The elites that decide on those issues are mostly unaffected by the consequences anyway.”
The major shortcomings in North Korea’s healthcare system are well-documented, with a report late last year having assessed the country to be one of the world’s most ill-prepared to deal with a major pandemic.
“North Korea understands that despite its limited capacity to treat and contain an outbreak of a new virus, it must act to protect its population,” Kee Park, a lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School who has worked extensively with healthcare professionals in the DPRK.
“During the Ebola epidemic, the government at one point quarantined foreigners to make sure they did not have any symptoms prior to entry– an administratively demanding option,” he added.
“Despite the loss of tourism revenues, the decision to suspend foreign tourists from entering North Korea is a sound public health intervention for mitigating the risk.”
One expert, however, told NK News that an extended closure of the border could stand to disrupt foreign aid and education programs, with entrepreneurs in Pyongyang and other trading hubs hit hard by a drop in trade and tourism.
“We saw this with the Ebola crisis. It was quite devastating,” Geoffrey See, founder of Choson Exchange, which brings entrepreneurs into North Korea for training and mentorship in business, said.
What has changed over the past couple of decades though, See argued, is the impact that business people have on political decisions. During the Ebola crisis in 2015, “the business community was quite effective in communicating their concerns to the government.”
While the economic damage on the business and tourism was immense, he said the North Korean government may be more careful in weighing the benefits of such protective measures against the costs.
“The more autonomous economy has grown, and those people are a lot more interested in protecting their livelihood. Today, the business community has a lot more to lose.”
Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said embassies are “completely forbidden” from leaving the country. They are in fact “completely forbidden” from going to or from China.
Colin Zwirko, Jeongmin Kim, and Nils Weisensee contributed reporting
Edited by James Fretwell