North Korea cracks down on visitors to keep Ebola out

Despite virtually no connections to virus, the country has banned tourists and is mulling strict quarantines

PYONGYANG, North Korea – Japan is not exactly Ebola country, but when a high-level delegation from Tokyo arrived in Pyongyang this week, two of the first people they met were dressed in full hazmat gear.

North Korea is always on guard against outside influences, but now that it perceives the deadly disease to be a threat, its anxiety has reached a new level. It has banned tourists, is mulling strict quarantine requirements, has put business groups on hold and is looking even more suspiciously than usual at every foreign face coming across its borders.

No matter that it is more than 10,000 kilometres from the nearest confirmed case, or that its ties to affected countries are minuscule.

The North’s frantic response to the Ebola outbreak, including the broad but so-far poorly defined ban on foreign tourism, is also surprising because the notoriously reclusive country admits so few foreigners in the first place. Other than diplomatic and government missions, it has virtually no contact with any of the countries that have been most affected in west Africa, though, ironically, Kim Yong Nam, the head of North Korea’s parliament, is now touring other parts of Africa.

But the measures shed some light on how the bureaucracy in North Korea tends to work, and on the isolated country’s views on the outside world in general.

For the record: There have been no cases of Ebola in North Korea.

But last week, after rumours began to circulate among the small foreign community in Pyongyang that draconian measures were in the offing, North Korea’s state media announced that travellers and cargo would be subject to stricter monitoring at airports, seaports and border railway crossings.

Daily pieces are being broadcast on the television news and during evening programming to increase public awareness of the disease and its symptoms. North Korea’s Korean Central Television aired a news story on Sunday that showed quarantine officials strengthening inspections of people and boats moving in and out of the port city of Nampo.

“Our army, which protects our borders, has a high responsibility to block the disease,” said Han Yong Sik, director of the Nampo export-and-import inspection centre told the network. “We are strengthening quarantine education and thoroughly inspecting boats and planes to ensure that not even a single person carrying the disease enters our country.”

So far, there has been no official statement in the North’s English-language media outlining the tourism ban or other restrictions on travel into or out of the country. There was, and remains, little information on what groups are affected, whether travel out of North Korea will be stopped and under what conditions the restrictions would be lifted.

That, of course, has left potential travellers scratching their heads – and businesses bleeding money.

“It was poorly communicated,” noted a post Monday on the website of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based organization that specializes in promoting business and educational exchange with the North. “This didn’t allow stakeholders time to prepare for it. For Choson Exchange, we could be seeing potentially tens of thousands of dollars of losses as we delay training programs, and possibly even more as this drags on.

“For businesspeople, a shutdown will likely hurt their investment plans or transactions.”

Uri Tours, a U.S.-based travel agency that specializes in tours to North Korea – officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – has informed potential customers that tours have been halted, and that anyone coming to the North from certain areas may be quarantined.

“We have heard from multiple sources on the ground that the DPRK is in the process of setting up a quarantine process whereby foreigners who have been to affected areas are quarantined for a period of 21 days,” it announced on its website. “So far, the only ‘affected areas’ appear to be in Africa. We have yet to see how this quarantine will be executed.”

Other sources in Pyongyang say the country may broaden that even further – requiring all foreigners coming in from anywhere to undergo a 21-day quarantine.

More than 13,700 people have been sickened in the outbreak, and nearly 5,000 of them have died. Nearly all the cases are in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, though there were 20 in Nigeria, four in the U.S. and one each in Mali, Senegal and Spain.

Uri Tours says it believes the ban on tourists is just temporary – and is holding out hope that they may be able to return in December.

The North’s reaction isn’t unprecedented. It closed its borders for several months in 2003 during the scare over SARS.

But that was a much more obvious threat. SARS affected China, and Beijing is where most flights into Pyongyang originate. In the case of Ebola, North Korea’s efforts to defend itself from what appears to be a tiny risk may end up alienating it from foreigners who have been willing to invest here.

“Overall, this episode seems to reflect two things. First, a callous attitude toward stakeholders in the country’s development stemming from poor communications or the lack of will to communicate,” said the Choson Exchange blog. “Second, that North Korea’s ‘fear of the foreign’ outweighs their interest in whatever benefits foreign investment brings.”

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