03/19/2020, 10.19
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Pyongyang orders people to wear masks on public transport

The regime extends closure of kindergartens and schools. Seoul designates two border cities as independent operators for humanitarian projects in favor of the North. Kim Jong-un attends inauguration ceremony for the construction of a large hospital in Pyongyang.

Seoul (AsiaNews / Agencies) – North Korea’s regime is banning citizens from using public transport without wearing protective masks, according to state media, in the latest precautionary measure ordered by Pyongyang to counter the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

The South Korean Ministry for Unification adds that fears of an epidemic have prompted the North to extend the nation's kindergarten and school holidays again. The ministry also declares that it has designated two border cities as independent operators for humanitarian aid projects to North Korea, as part of government efforts to strengthen cross-border trade and cooperation.

At present, Pyongyang has not confirmed any Covid-19 outbreak; but according to rumors, the regime has put thousands of people under medical supervision for potential infections and has taken various preventative measures, including blocking borders and applying rigorous quarantine measures.

In recent days, Southern media have also claimed that the virus has already killed nearly 200 North Korean soldiers. Yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a ceremony for the beginning of construction work on a large hospital in Pyongyang, calling it a "crucial task" to support the country's public health. The event marked Kim's first public activity in the capital for about three weeks.

State media reports suggest that Kim had been away from the capital to observe military exercises along the east coast, including the last one on 9 March.

Today the Rodong Sinmun - the Workers' Party official newspaper - published the latest guidelines of for its citizens use of public transport. The new measures oblige passengers to wear masks and sanitize their hands before boarding trains, subways, buses and taxis.

People will also need to check the temperature before using public transport for long-distance travel and, if they show suspicious symptoms, they must be excluded from boarding. Trains and buses are required to set up an area to quarantine passengers with flu-like symptoms, while the crew must wear masks and gloves and must not reuse protective equipment.

At the end of last month, the North said it had postponed the opening of kindergartens and schools, without mentioning exact dates. In a report released today, the South Korean Ministry of Unification says: "Recently, North Korean state media reported that school breaks have been extended again." The ministry says it wasn't mentioned exactly when the new school year would restart. North Korean kindergartens and schools are usually on vacation from January until mid-February.

To assist Pyongyang in addressing the ongoing crisis, Seoul has designated two border cities as independent humanitarian agencies. The designation of Paju and Goyang, both located near the inter-Korean border, brings the number of municipalities running projects in favor of the North to six.

However, such initiatives are unlikely to advance soon, as relations between the two Koreas have stalled. The other four aid interlocutors are Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi province and southern Chungcheong province.

Previously, local governments had to work with private actors to provide aid to the North, but last year the government revised the laws to allow them to engage in such activities on their own, once state approval was obtained. It is not yet clear whether the designation will lead to cross-border trade. So far, North Korea has not responded to Seoul's offers for the supply of food and medical care.

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