North asks personnel from South to wear masks

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North asks personnel from South to wear masks

North Korea has asked South Korean personnel working at the inter-Korean liaison center in Kaesong to wear masks as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus into the country, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Tuesday.

A ministry official told reporters that South Korea has begun its own efforts to strengthen epidemic prevention efforts at the inter-Korean border. A quarantine officer from the Heath Ministry has been dispatched to the border customs office equipped with an infrared thermal camera with the task of checking for fever symptoms on all personnel moving back and forth across the demilitarized zone.

All South Korean officials who visit the Kaesong office were also given face masks and hand sanitizer starting from Tuesday, the official added.

Seoul regularly conducts health screenings on all personnel who cross into its border from North Korea. This is the first time, however, that quarantine checks are conducted in the reverse direction - on South Koreans visiting the North.

While there have been no reported cases of coronavirus infections in North Korea so far, Pyongyang’s request may stem from its anxiety that the new virus strain from China has the potential to wreak havoc on its fragile and inadequate health care system.

South Korea has four confirmed cases of people diagnosed with the coronavirus as of Monday.

According to tourism operators in China, North Korea announced on Jan. 20 that it would be banning all Chinese tourists from visiting the country for an indefinite period of time, “until the development of a vaccine” for the Wuhan virus. Koryo Airlines, the North’s state carrier, on Monday said it would not be servicing flights to and from major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai. State media, meanwhile, has been broadcasting messages for days urging caution against the disease among the North Korean public.

The new coronavirus strain outbreak in China, revolving primarily around the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, has so far infected 4,515 people, killing 106 of them, according to Beijing’s official tally. The rapid spread of the disease since December, with reported cases in several other countries including the United States, Australia and Japan, is spreading fears of a pandemic.

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.

With regards to the new coronavirus, which has proven itself to be highly contagious in China, a Unification Ministry official said the South Korean government so far deems it unlikely that the virus could spread through inter-Korean contact but that monitoring activities would continue.

The two Koreas reached an agreement in November 2018 to work together to combat infectious diseases through the exchange of information and joint health care projects.

Since last year, however, inter-Korean exchanges have been reduced to a bare minimum owing to Pyongyang’s disappointment over South Korea’s reluctance to detach from the U.S.-led sanctions campaign on North Korea.

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