North Korea to allow its citizens abroad to return home, a sign of further easing of pandemic curbs

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Sunday it will allow its citizens staying abroad to return home in line with easing pandemic situations worldwide, as the country slowly eases its draconian coronavirus restrictions.

In a brief statement carried by state media, the State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters said those returning to North Korea will be put in quarantine for a week for “proper medical observation.”

The statement didn’t elaborate. But analysts predicted the announcement would lead to the return of North Korean students, workers and others who have had to stay abroad, mostly in China and Russia, because of the pandemic. The workers are a key source of foreign income for the country.

North Korea banned tourists, jetted out diplomats and severely curtailed border traffic and trade after the pandemic began. The lockdown has further worsened the North’s chronic economic difficulties and food insecurity.

Earlier this month, South Korea’s spy agency said North Korea was preparing to further reopen its borders gradually in a bid to revive its economy.

On Tuesday, a North Korean commercial jet landed in Beijing in what was the North’s first such commercial international flight known to leave the country in about 3½ years. The plane returned from Beijing later in the day, but it wasn’t known who was aboard it.

Earlier in August, a group of North Korean taekwondo athletes and officials traveled by land to Beijing and then took a flight to Kazakhstan to participate in an international competition.

The group of around 80 men and women wearing white track suits with the North Korean flag on the front were seen in the departure hall of Beijing’s international airport. It was the first time such a big delegation from North Korea made an international trip since the pandemic began.

Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute, said the return of workers from abroad will mean the loss of a rare source of foreign currency for North Korea, so the government will likely push to send other workers to replace them in China and Russia.

Accepting new North Korean workers would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution that required member states to repatriate all North Korean laborers from their territories by late 2019.

Given that North Korea intends to quarantine returnees for one week, Cheong said it seems unlikely North Korea would resume receiving Chinese and other foreign tourists anytime soon. He said North Korea is expected to allow foreigners to enter the country next year if the return of its nationals does not cause any coronavirus outbreaks.

In August 2022, North Korea made a highly dubious claim to have overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. In the following month, the North resumed freight train service with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, but much of its restrictions on border crossings by individuals have remained in effect.

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Hyung-jin Kim