March 5, 2020 / 11:57 AM / a month ago

With North Korea border shut, China warns citizens to keep away, or else

SINGAPORE/SEOUL (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have told people to stay away from the border with North Korea, which has banned people from China to keep out the coronavirus, or risk being shot by North Korean guards, residents of the area said.

FILE PHOTO: North Korean fishermen are seen behind a Chinese flag fluttering from the Broken Bridge as the sun sets over the Yalu River between the North Korean town of Sinuiju and Dandong in Liaoning province, China, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

Residents said the warning came in a printed notice that Chinese authorities in the area issued this week, the latest indication of how seriously North Korea takes the threat of the virus.

Close allies China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (880-mile) frontier that is especially porous in winter, when rivers separating the countries freeze, allowing people to cross.

Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters.

“We’re told that we may get killed if we get too close to the border area,” said one restaurant owner in Jian, which is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

Residents are prohibited from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according to the notice issued this week.

North Korea asked China to tighten border controls to avoid its citizens getting shot and killed as North Korea had raised its coronavirus threat assessment to its highest level, it said.

“The public security organs will monitor the border 24 hours a day and anyone found will face administrative detention” by Chinese police, authorities said in the notice, which was seen by Reuters.

“Violators will be shot,” it said, meaning by North Korean guards.

A Jian propaganda official, who declined to be identified, confirmed by telephone that the city’s border control office issued a similar warning in a text message.

“During the epidemic prevention period, any activities including fishing on the Yalu River or shouting to North Koreans across the river are strictly prohibited,” the office said in the message, although it stopped short of warning of shots.

The official said the wording on such messages may have gone too far in some areas. Reuters could not reach city officials in Baishan. It was not clear if other cities issued such warnings.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ENTRY BANS

Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 ebola outbreak.

North Korea has not reported any coronavirus cases, but experts say its measures in recent weeks go beyond those it took previously.

North Korea moved quickly to restrict travel and trade from China, where the coronavirus emerged late last year.

The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 and killed more than 3,000 in China and is rapidly spreading around the world.

Most flights and trains in and out of North Korea have been restricted, foreign diplomats in Pyongyang were quarantined for a month, and authorities have cracked down on cross-border smuggling.

South Korea, separated from the North by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), has reported nearly 6,000 cases.

In January, North Korea told travel agencies that it was closing its borders to travellers from China, Reuters reported, cutting off one of its few sources of external revenue.

It is unclear how much trade continues, but sources who work near the border have said much of the official and unofficial trade was affected. Activists who work with North Korean refugees trying to leave through China said the border lockdown has made an already dangerous journey nearly impossible.

“At the border crossings, personnel in charge of inspection and quarantine are discharging their duty in a responsible manner to completely keep the virus from spreading to the country,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported last month.

Reporting by Keith Zhai in Singapore and Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Tony Munroe, Robert Birsel

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