North said to act on fear of bird flu
South Korean intelligence sources said yesterday that North Korea was apparently afraid of the spread of bird flu to top officials when it canceled an annual meeting of its highest legislative body earlier this month.
The North’s state-run media issued an unusual announcement on March 4, saying that the regular session of the Supreme People's Assembly, which was scheduled to take place on March 9, had been postponed. The report offered no explanation for the delay.
Since the communist regime’s establishment in 1948, the Assembly has met annually, largely to rubber-stamp decisions by the North's leaders.
“Analyzing all information we’ve got so far, the intelligence community concluded the delay was caused by the avian influenza outbreak,” a ranking official of South Korea's Ministry of Unification said.
South Korea’s intelligence agencies detected possible signs of a bird flu outbreak in North Korea late last month. Information from China indicated an outbreak at poultry farms near Pyongyang, and North Korean media increasingly issued reports about bird flu incidents around the world. South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies also detected unusual moves at North Korea’s agriculture and health ministries.
“With more than 600 delegates from all over the country supposed to gather in Pyongyang for the legislative meeting, there was concern the disease would spread uncontrollably,” the Unification Ministry source said. In connection with the Supreme People’s Assembly session, North Korean officials usually tour poultry farms, other cooperatives and power plants in and around Pyongyang.
Following the indications that North Korea was facing a bird flu outbreak, Seoul quietly began quarantine measures. The 400,000 tons of chicken meat, scheduled to be imported from the North on March 11, was stopped, and incoming travelers from the Kaesong industrial complex and the Mount Kumgang resort were given thorough health checks at the border.
“Because the North would possibly get upset, we had to carry out the measures secretly,” Rhee Bong-jo, vice minister of unification, said.
South Korea officially asked the North to verify the outbreak on March 15, but Pyongyang replied on March 17, denying the possibility. Ten days later, however, North Korea confessed to the outbreak.
by Lee Young-jong, Ser Myo-ja