North Korea ends quarantine of some foreigners in virus move

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) — North Korea said yesterday it released about 220 foreigners from a quarantine imposed as part of its vigilant prevention efforts to avoid an outbreak of the coronavirus that spread around the world.

The country has not publicly disclosed any cases of COVID-19, but outsiders are skeptical it escaped the virus that erupted in its neighbour and closest ally China and has infected more than 98,000 people globally.

About 380 foreigners in North Korea had been placed under medical surveillance, state radio previously reported.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said yesterday that 221 of them were freed from “strict confined medical observation”. It gave no further details.

Some foreign media outlets including Russia’s state-run Tass news agency have reported some foreigners in Pyongyang were to be evacuated soon.

South Korean soldiers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus on a street in Seoul, South Korea, yesterday. PHOTO: AP

North Korea said at least 7,000 of its people were in medical surveillance as well. It has said it was strengthening its screening of those who came back from overseas trips or had contacts with foreigners.

COVID-19 has proven challenging to identify, contain and treat in well-off countries, and experts worry an outbreak could be devastating in impoverished North Korea, which has a malnourished population and a chronic shortage of medical supplies.

The country banned foreign tourists, virtually closed off its borders, delayed the school year and mobilised tens of thousands of government workers every day for disease-prevention efforts. It has closed a liaison office with South Korea indefinitely.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered a stronger quarantine campaign and warned of “serious consequences” if the illness spreads to the North.

KCNA said North Korea was taking “top-class anti-epidemic measures” in response to recent Politburo decisions.

South Korea has the world’s second-biggest outbreak, with 6,284 cases. Most are in the southeastern city of Daegu, where a cluster was connected to a local church.

“Escalating outbreaks around the world prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) Chief to call on governments to pull out “all the stops” to slow the epidemic.

“Countries have been planning for scenarios like this for decades. Now is the time to act on those plans,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.