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North Korea halts all public transportation outside of Pyongyang to stop coronavirus

Pyongyang bus (AgainErick/WikiCommons)
December 16, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea has suspended all public transportation nationwide except for in the capital Pyongyang, the latest measure by the self-proclaimed “virus-free” nation to stop the spread of coronavirus within its borders, sources in the country told RFA.

Despite the government having banned travel between provinces earlier in the year, many residents were still able to move across the country on public transportation.

“From the beginning of this month, all public transport networks linking the whole country were stopped under the direction of the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party.] Trains, buses, and private couriers were banned as part of measures to stop the coronavirus,” a resident of North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast told RFA’s Korean Service Nov. 8.

“Earlier this month, the Central Committee ordered residents of the city of Chongjin to stop using the roads. The authorities, which had been limiting the movement of residents to other areas of the country, are now blocking public transportation because of the virus,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The measures suggest that the country has a spreading virus problem, but North Korea to date has not confirmed a single case of COVID-19.

Pyongyang claimed to be completely virus free to foreign media in April, the same month it warned people in public lectures that the virus was spreading in three geographically distant parts of the country.

Extensive measures to prevent public transmission of COVID-19 have included cancelling major cultural events, temporarily locking down entire cities and counties, and delaying and then cancelling planned school openings.

The government then fired its senior health officials that month for their failure to effectively lead the country’s quarantine effort, and increased preventative measures nationwide.

On the Oct. 10 75th anniversary of the 1945 Korean Workers’ Party, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un is said to have been overcome by emotion, thanking the people in a speech for their success in preserving North Korea’s virus-free status.

But by late October, the WHO reported several thousand “suspected cases” in North Korea, but none has been confirmed.

News of the virus spiking in November has spread among the people, and the government is now trying to “flatten the curve” by stopping public transit.

“Residents were still using trains at Chongnyon station in Chongjin until earlier this month. Now that the order to suspend public transit, travelers and merchants have all but disappeared from the station square. In addition to the trains, the intercity buses and private couriers from Chongjin to other provincial areas are also suspended, so there’s no way to get out of Chongjin to anywhere else.” the North Hamgyong resident said.

“Yesterday afternoon, I went to the intercity bus station in the Sunam district of Chongjin and all bus routes to the whole country stopped running, so there were no people, and the buses were just packed in the parking lot,” the source said.

The source said that even local bus routes that carry passengers around Chongjin have also closed down.

Another source, a resident of Sinuiju, across the border from the Chinese city of Dandong, confirmed that the public transit ban was in effect there as well.

“Although measures have been in place to prevent residents from moving around for a long time, public transportation was still running. So they issued this order to stop all movement,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“Since the beginning of this month, the Sinuiju Automobile Transport Center, the Provincial Long-Distance Transportation Unit, and the Sinuiju Passenger Transportation Center have all been shut down. The bus stop in the station square, which was always crowded with people, is now completely empty,” the second source said.

Residents of the city of 360,000 know the travel ban – formally known as the “Suspension of Public Transportation in Order to Fundamentally Prevent the Movement of Residents” — is “all related to the coronavirus quarantine,” the second source said.

“The virus has started spreading again since November. The Central Committee saw that people were still using public transit, and so proposed this special measure,” said the Sinuiju source.

Meanwhile in the capital Pyongyang, public transit within the city is still operational, a resident who declined to be named told RFA.

“All means of transportation that link Pyongyang to provincial cities, including trains and buses have been banned. The roads to and from Pyongyang are strictly monitored by the police and military, so no people or objects can enter or leave Pyongyang, but the metro and local buses are still running here,” the third source said.

An official from the South Korea-based Korean Transport Institute said that since the coronavirus outbreak, no unusual developments related to the operation of North Korean public transportation have been identified.