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(2nd LD) Koreas to temporarily shut down liaison office amid new coronavirus fears

All News 17:21 January 30, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with planned return of South Korean officials in 4th para; UPGRADES attribution in lead, 2nd para)
By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea on Thursday agreed to temporarily shut down their joint liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, the unification ministry said.

They will establish new telephone and fax lines to continue communications between Seoul and Pyongyang despite the shutdown, which will continue until the threat posed by the virus is "completely eased," the ministry said.

"North Korea has been beefing up quarantine efforts after declaring the launch of a national emergency system, and the decision (to temporarily suspend the office) was made following (the two sides') consultations," a ministry official said.

All of the 58 South Koreans stationed at the office -- 17 government officials and 41 supporting staff members -- were to return to the South later Thursday.

The decision, which was made earlier in the day during a meeting at the office, came amid South and North Korea's stepped-up efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly illness which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. The virus has killed at least 170 and infected more than 7,700 in China alone.

South Korea has confirmed four cases of the pneumonia-like illness since early last week. North Korea has not yet reported any confirmed infections.

The North's main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, said it has organized regional control towers across the country to strengthen its monitoring of efforts to stem the spread of the virus. Pyongyang earlier declared the launch of a national emergency system against the new virus, calling it a "political matter" that could determine the fate of the country.

Asked to comment on any plan for quarantine cooperation with the North, the ministry official said the government is for now focused on monitoring how the situation develops in South Korea.

The inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong was launched in 2018 to support exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas following a summit agreement between their leaders in April that year.

They agreed to hold a weekly meeting of co-heads of the office -- one from each side -- but no such meeting has been held since February last year amid chilled cross-border relations. Still, the two sides have been holding regular contacts twice a day.

This photo filed March 24, 2019, shows the joint liaison office set up by South and North Korea in the North's border town of Kaesong, following a summit agreement between their leaders in April 2018. (Joint Press Corps-Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr
(END)

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