Is North Korea Easing Its COVID-19 Border Controls? Decoding the Signals
The Echoes of Isolation
Since February 2020, North Korea has been operating under a policy of strict isolation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in closed borders and a significant reduction in trade with China, its economic lifeline. These measures, although effective in controlling the virus, have led to severe economic ramifications, including shortages of essential goods and skyrocketing prices.
Signs of Change?
In recent times, there have been indications that North Korea might be beginning to relax these stringent restrictions. Evidence of increased activity at the border with China, as seen in satellite images, including at a newly constructed bridge that could potentially facilitate trade, has raised questions. Furthermore, North Korea has recently passed laws to promote foreign trade and investment, suggesting a potential shift in policy.
The Silence from Pyongyang
Despite these indications, North Korea has not officially announced any change in its policy, and the country’s public health situation remains unclear due to its self-imposed isolation. North Korea has reported zero cases of COVID-19, a claim that is met with suspicion by many outside experts. The World Health Organization (WHO) has offered to assist North Korea with its vaccination efforts, but it is unclear whether the country will accept this offer.
The Return of North Koreans Abroad
In a recent development, North Korea announced that it will allow its citizens living abroad to return home, albeit with a mandatory one week quarantine. This announcement follows the arrival of a North Korean flight from Pyongyang in Beijing, marking the first known international commercial flight to exit North Korea since January 2020. Additionally, flights between North Korea and Russia are also set to resume.
International Sporting Participation
The signals of a policy shift were further substantiated by the participation of about a hundred North Korean Taekwondo athletes in the 22nd International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) World Championship held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. This is believed to be the first overseas trip taken by a North Korean sports team since restrictions were imposed in the country in 2020.
Conclusion: A Conundrum Wrapped in Mystery
The main takeaways are that North Korea appears to be beginning to relax its strict COVID-19 border controls, as evidenced by increased activity at the border with China and new laws to promote foreign trade. However, the country’s public health situation remains opaque, and the timeline of fully reopening the borders is uncertain. The economic and public health impacts of the pandemic on North Korea are significant, but the full extent is unknown due to the country’s isolation. The world watches closely as North Korea navigates these uncharted waters.
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