North Korea's Ebola Shutdown Widens

Is it just us or every fall is there some drama that shakes up North Korea’s relationships with its business partners? Last year, it was Jang Sung Taek’s sudden purge.  This year it’s the border shutdown due to Ebola. Last week, we found out that that tourists would not be able to enter the DPRK. Now it also seems that North Koreans are apparently not allowed abroad, at least to Singapore (and probably other countries), for training purposes.

We are still trying to find out more about these latest measures and when they will be reverted so that our programs can continue. But at least we now know that hyping up Ebola in the media is much more effective as a tool to isolate North Korea than anything else in the sanctions arsenal. Is this a misreading of the Ebola threat? Is it a genuine fear that they could not deal with a single case of Ebola? Is it a message for the domestic audience? Is it that North Korea’s underlying “fear of the foreign” is greater than their desire to be part of international society? As far as we're aware, at this point in time, North Korea is the only country to completely shut its border to all tourists, regardless of their travel history.

Expert Hyungchol Choi has this to say:  "No country was better prepared to repel the infestation than North Korea…" OK, so Cho may be the fictional director of the South Korean intelligence service in Max Brooks’s 2006 dystopian novel World War Z. And he was of course commenting on a zombie apocalypse outbreak, not Ebola. Foreshadowing real life, though, in the novel North Korea shuts its borders decisively when the outbreak happens*. 

While a complete shutdown of the borders to all travel, even to places with no record of Ebola or Zombieism, is completely within North Korea’s rights, the manner in which these measures were rolled out leaves much to be desired. For a start, it was poorly communicated. News came out of it not through official KCNA channels, but through North Korean tour guides in North Korea to their foreign counterparts. There was little information on what groups (e.g. tourists, business people, diplomats, NGOs) would be affected, whether outbound North Korean travel would be curtailed, how the shutdown would be rolled out, or under what conditions the shutdown would be relaxed.

In the run-up to the shutdown, there was also little communication that such measures were being considered. This didn’t allow stakeholders time to prepare for it. For Choson Exchange, we could be seeing potentially tens of thousands of dollars of losses as we delay training programs, and possibly even more as this drags on. For businesspeople, a shutdown will likely hurt their investment plans or transactions. Given the limited international telecommunications in North Korea and the lack of alternatives made available to locals to contact their counterparts, this shutdown seals North Koreans off more than it would any other country faced with a similar decision. 

Overall, this episode seems to reflect two things. First, a callous attitude towards stakeholders in the country’s development stemming from poor communications or the lack of will to communicate. Second, that North Korea’s “fear of the foreign” outweighs their interest in whatever benefits foreign investment brings. It is hard to blame ones’ partners, business or educational, as people who made this decision are important and adequately buffered enough that they can avoid the consequences of such disruptions.



*In the film version, Brad Pitt runs around while the Zombies prevent the screenwriters from finding a narrative