North Korea is allowing its nationals abroad to return to the country which is further easing the strict lockdown imposed since 2020 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported on Sunday.
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According to the official KCNA news agency, the state’s Epidemic Emergency Prevention Center announced that “overseas citizens have been allowed to return home.”
“Returning individuals will be placed under appropriate medical observation in quarantine centers for one week,” the agency said, adding that the decision was made due to “the improving state of the pandemic globally. “.
North Korea closed its borders in early 2020 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, but there are growing signs that the country is moving towards reopening.
After three years of shutdown, the national airline Air Koryo, for example, resumed international commercial flights, one of which landed in Beijing on Tuesday.
Last week, a delegation of North Korean athletes was allowed to leave the country to take part in a taekwondo competition in Kazakhstan.
And last month, Chinese and Russian dignitaries attended a military parade in Pyongyang. They were the first senior foreign officials to visit North Korea in several years.
“With this latest announcement, it is expected that a large-scale return of North Koreans will also take place by land,” Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.
Despite signs of easing, some analysts say North Korea is not yet quite ready to reopen its borders.
No full reopening
“North Koreans haven’t been vaccinated,” said Cho Han-bum, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
He adds that Pyongyang was likely spooked by the bottlenecks in China’s health care system after Beijing’s sudden decision last December to end its zero-Covid policy.
This had led to a massive increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths in the country. Some studies estimate that nearly two million people died in the weeks that followed.
North Korea has a failing healthcare system – one of the worst in the world – and lacks Covid vaccines, antiviral drugs or mass testing capacity.
According to Cho, in the event of a full reopening, the situation could be much worse than in China.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the very limited resumption of flights to China and Russia and the permission given to foreign citizens to return home “in no way constitute a full reopening of the border”.
And the week-long quarantine imposed on citizens returning home suggests tourism to North Korea will not resume any time soon, added Cheong of the Sejong Institute.