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(3rd LD) S. Koreans withdraw from liaison office in N.K. amid new coronavirus fears

All Headlines 19:26 January 30, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with return of South Korean officials, latest info)
By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- All South Koreans working at the inter-Korean liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong returned home Thursday after the two Koreas agreed to temporarily shut down the office amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, the unification ministry said.

The shutdown decision was made during a meeting at the office earlier in the day following 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 two Koreas will establish new telephone and fax lines to continue communications between Seoul and Pyongyang despite the closure, 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 -- 17 government officials and 41 supporting staff members -- who were stationed at the office crossed the military demarcation line back to the South later Thursday.

According to Chinese authorities, the new virus has killed at least 170 and infected more than 7,700 in the country alone.

South Korea has confirmed six 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
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