North Korea stops taking back defectors, monitors virus risks
SEOUL — North Korea has called a temporary halt to the repatriation of defectors from China, days after it suspended all train and air travel to and from the neighboring country, whose central city of Wuhan is the epicenter of a new coronavirus outbreak that has claimed more than 360 lives so far, Voice of America reported Monday.
“From what I hear, Pyongyang isn’t accepting defectors. It asked China not to (send them back) because of the recent coronavirus outbreak,” South Korean pastor Kim Sung-eun, well known for helping North Korean defectors, told VOA, citing Chinese police.
The flow of personnel and goods over the Tumen Border Bridge connecting the two countries has practically stopped, the VOA report said, citing Chinese sources familiar with the issue.
“Smuggling, however, won’t stop because the local black markets keep North Koreans alive. Given the circumstances, they could be diminished, though,” the same Chinese sources told VOA.
Last month, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s spy agency said smuggling was Pyongyang’s key source of revenue.
“Wouldn’t North Koreans worry more about staying alive than about coming into contact with the new virus? The country could close down its borders, but people who rely on smuggling for their livelihoods will have a hard time (not doing so). Smuggling will thrive,” Kim told VOA.
Economic conditions in the North could worsen, according to the report.
Also on Monday, Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said it had been closely monitoring people entering the country since Jan. 13.
On Jan. 28, North Korea announced nationwide emergency quarantine measures.
Its state-run newspaper also reported that the country would use all its resources to counter the spread of the virus, while keeping North Korean residents updated on which countries are affected by the outbreak.
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