North Korea’s communist regime banned all foreign visitors from entering the country on Tuesday as a precaution against the recent outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, according to tourist companies who operate in the country.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours told local media outlets that it was contacted by a business partner in North Korea about the measure on Tuesday, confirming that it would apply to all foreign visitors including those traveling on business. Increasing numbers of Chinese have visited North Korea in recent years amid warming relations and an expansion of the state-run tourism industry.
Pyongyang’s state propaganda newspaper Rodong Sinmun did not mention such measures on Wednesday but did report on the outbreak in China, describing it as having “spread rapidly,” while confirming that Chinese health authorities were taking “corresponding measures.”
The bold measure is an indication of the level of concern among North Korean authorities, who are treating it as a precaution against the spread of infectious diseases. The country’s population is suspected to be particularly vulnerable because of the chronic food shortages and lack of essential medical supplies, meaning an aggressive outbreak could wipe out huge numbers of people.
The move is expected to place additional strain on North Korea, with foreign tourism an integral part of maintaining the communist regime’s finances. Foreign tourists are estimated to contribute around $45 million USD every year, providing a vital source of income that avoids economic sanctions and allows them access to foreign currency.
“This is bad news for North Korea, but I suspect the greater concern is the public health risk,” Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Alabama’s Troy University, told the South China Morning Post. “[The outbreak of] a disease would have a greater impact on its society and pose a greater challenge for it than the lost tourism revenue.”
At least nine people have died and a further 481 identified as carrying the virus internationally. While most cases occurred in China, others have been recorded in Thailand, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Chinese state media insists that “there is no need to panic” as health authorities have the situation under control, despite taking over a month to acknowledge it and only identifying the new virus’s genome on Monday.
It is not the first time that Pyongyang has taken such action over health concerns. In October 2014, it similarly closed its borders to all foreign tourists for over four months to avoid any exposure to the Ebola virus, despite the fact that no cases had been reported in Asia. It also took similar action back in 2003 in response to the worldwide epidemic of a severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, suspending all foreign tours for three months.