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North Korea to Become First Country to Shut Borders over Ebola Fear

On the same day that North Korea announced a ban on foreign travelers over Ebola, South Korean media cited intelligence sources suggesting that several top military and government official were purged during Kim Jong-un's recent seclusion.
Image via AP/Lee Jin-man

North Korea will be the first country in the world to shut their borders over fear of the spread of Ebola despite no reported cases of the virus in the reclusive country.

On Friday the Hermit Kingdom will bar entry to foreigners on tourist trips, although it is still unclear if the travel ban would affect members of the diplomatic or business community with ties to Pyongyang.

International travel to North Korea is rare but the country has a track record of sealing its border to foreign visitors over health concerns. In 2003 the country closed its borders because of the threat of SARS, despite not a single case being reported there.


On the same day that North Korea announced a ban on foreign travelers over Ebola, South Korean media cited intelligence sources in a report suggesting that several top military and government officials were purged during Kim Jong-un's recent seclusion.

South Korea's respected JoongAng Ilbo newspaper even went as far as to cite an intelligence source as saying that "six minister-level officials were executed." While these reports are not confirmed and must be viewed with a critical eye, South Korean media has reported that six officials — including the commanding officer of North Korea's air force, the country's top architect, the minister of posts and telecommunications and a key official in the North's sport programs — have not been present at a series of important events in recent months.

General Ri Pyong-chol, for example, has not been seen in public since late August. His absence was most notable on October 19, when Kim provided "on-the-spot guidance" to senior officials of the North Korean air force.

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Ri was a rising star in the military when Kim, who is particularly fond of the air force, took power. North Korean TV reports captured the general whispering into Kim's ear on multiple occasions Korea JoongAng Daily, the English language version of South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo, reported. Many believe he is one of the most influential men in the military.


On September 25 he was elected to the National Defense Commission at the Supreme People's Assembly session leading some experts to believe that his absence might be linked to a new job yet to be announced.

Ri Yong-gil, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People's Army, did not attend a recent ceremony to congratulate athletes who returned from this month's Asian Games, in South Korea. Given that the majority of the athletes are members of the armed forces, he was expected to be present.

The news of these missing officials comes just days after Kim Jong-un himself reappeared on Oct 14, visiting military facilities and construction sites.

There had been speculation about the North Korean leaders health after he disappeared from local media reports for more than 40 days. Some theories emerged that he was recovering from ankle surgery, others suggested that he had been dealing with more serious matters such as a coup.

But some of his supposedly most trusted officials have still not reappeared sparking rumors the dictator disappeared to oversee a major purge of officials. This would be the third major purge in less than three years since Jong-un assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.

Seoul believes there could be a pattern to the potential purges carried out by the young leader.

"When he carries out a massive purge, he tends to stay out of public view for a significant period," a Unification Ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo.


Inside North Korea: Part 1. Watch Now. 

Michael Madden, a contributor to 38 North, a website produced by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told VICE News that such disappearances are common among the country's top leaders.

"Some of these senior officials go missing from public for a few weeks, sometimes a couple of months," Madden said.

While it is important to monitor prolonged disappearances of top Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPKR) officials, it doesn't necessarily lead to any concrete or reliable information, the expert added.

"On some occasions, they're discharging tasks that preclude them from appearing with Kim Jong-un or at other events in state media. On other occasions they've been sent away for re-education or indoctrination," Madden said, adding that such education or indoctrination "isn't necessarily punitive, it's the DPRK equivalent of attending corporate training seminars."

Andy Lim is a researcher at the Korea Chair platform at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of their April report "Kim Jong-un's New Entourage." He agreed with Madden that despite the local media reports about such officials have become more open and regular, it is still difficult to draw broader conclusions.

"For us from the outside, we don't really know for sure who is actually in charge in Pyongyang," Lim told VICE News. " All we can do is to read the tea leaves the best we can, and make best estimates from photo-ops of who is important."


Lim pointed out that since Kim came to power five Ministers of the People's Armed Forces, three First Vice Ministers of the People's Armed Forces, four Chiefs of the KPA General Staff, three directors of the General Staff Operations Bureau and three Directors of the KPA General Political Department have gone missing.

"These turnovers substantiate what most experts have been talking about in the past few years: the instability in the KPA and the constant shuffling."

He added: "What we do know for sure in North Korea is there is only one person at the top of the "unitary leadership", and that is Kim Jong Un."

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Follow Olivia Crellin on Twitter: @OliviaCrellin