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North Korea has temporarily closed its borders to foreign tourists, two major operators of tours to the isolated country said, in an apparent effort to seal itself off from a new virus causing global health worries.
The Beijing-based Koryo Tours said Wednesday that it received word from its partners in North Korea that the country’s borders were closed.
Young Pioneer Tours, another group that organizes trips to North Korea, had earlier said on Twitter that the temporary closures took effect Wednesday.
North Korea is one of the world’s most impoverished countries with few resources to fight a major outbreak. The country shares its longest border with China, which is also the epicenter of the virus, and receives a steady flow of tourists from the country that is its most-valued ally.
Health officials around the world are racing to gauge the danger posed by the new virus that emerged in central China last month and spread rapidly.
The World Health Organization will decide Wednesday whether to declare the novel virus an international public health emergency, a designation used for complex epidemics that can cross borders.
North Korea has shut its borders to foreign travelers before due to health scares such as the Ebola crisis, which led it to temporarily block foreign tourists for about six months starting in late 2014.
Although it’s one of the world’s most sanctioned countries, North Korea is allowed to accept foreign tourists, who provide a vital source of hard currency for the cash-starved regime of leader Kim Jong Un.
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In 2019, as the number of tour buses crossing into North Korea escalated, China stepped up enforcement of allowing a limit of 1,000 of its citizens a day to enter the country, according to NK News, an outlet that specializes on reporting on the country.
North Korea maintains close control on where foreign tourists can go and what they can do once they enter the country.
South Korea reported Monday its first confirmed case of the coronavirus, saying it came from a 35-year-old Chinese woman who had visited Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of early cases.
South Korea, which has frozen tourism with North Korea for several years due to political conflicts, also raised its alert level on the infectious disease.