January 31, 2020 12:38
The inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong was closed at North Korea's request on Thursday amid coronavirus fears. The North earlier closed its border with China because it lacks any other way of dealing with a potential coronavirus outbreak.
The closure shuts the sole remaining window of communication between the two Koreas, though in reality no meetings had taken place since the second U.S.-North Korea summit broke down in Hanoi in February last year while staff from the two sides twiddled their thumbs.
The liaison office opened in September 2018.
Unification Ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min said that the two sides agreed to suspend operations until coronavirus fears have been completely dispelled. But he claimed they agreed "to maintain liaison through separate telephone and fax lines between Seoul and Pyongyang."
The entire South Korean staff of 17 ranking officials and 41 support personnel hastily packed up and left for Seoul on Thursday afternoon.
The North is forgoing vital earnings from tourism and trade for fear of the virus getting into the country. This will deal a hard blow to an economy that is almost completely dependent on China, which takes up more than 90 percent of its foreign trade.
Cho Han-bum at the Korea Institute for National Unification sad the regime is afraid that "it would be impossible to prevent unrest if the epidemic spreads."
The regime's dilemma is that a deteriorating economy could be just as bad or worse for morale if it keeps its borders closed for any length of time.
Some officials believe there could be renewed contact between the two Koreas if coronavirus reaches the North because it could need Seoul's help. But so far there has been no request to assist with quarantine efforts, and North Korea rebuffed earlier offers from South Korea to help contain a swine fever outbreak.
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