North Korea's Ebola fears expose regime weakness, experts say

North Korea's leadership is wary of regime collapse that could ensue in the wake of an epidemic, South Korean experts say.
By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Feb. 25, 2015 at 8:26 AM
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SEOUL, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- An official at South Korea's unification ministry said North Korea closed its borders to tourists in October because its leadership lacks the confidence in its own healthcare infrastructure to contain an epidemic, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The statement on Tuesday came a day after North Korea travel specialists said the reclusive regime banned foreign runners from its annual Pyongyang Marathon. Marathon organizers cited concerns of an Ebola outbreak within North Korea's borders.

In addition to the marathon ban, it was unclear whether a North Korean youth soccer tournament scheduled for April would also be suspended.

South Korea's top intelligence chief, Lee Byung-kee, said in a separate statement that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is personally fearful of an Ebola outbreak. The South Korean official said Kim is convinced an epidemic could shake North Korea's infrastructure and lead to the state's collapse.

To date, there have been no reported cases of Ebola in the countries that border North Korea.

Threats to state security loom large for the North Korean leadership, and they continue to grow, said Kim Jin-ha, head of a South Korean government think tank specializing in unification issues.

Speaking at a National Unification Advisory Council panel on Wednesday, Kim Jin-ha said the intensification of the cult of the North Korean Kims and specialized distribution of wealth to the elite is angering North Korea's less privileged population, a development that paves more roads to instability.

Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said events like the Pyongyang Marathon allow Kim Jong Un to show North Korean citizens that the nation counts in the international world, but its economic benefits to ordinary North Koreans are slightly less clear.

"There is money [the marathon] brings in," Breuker told UPI. "But it has become clear that it is routed completely to Room 39 to be spent under Kim Jong Un's direct supervision...with the money routed to the top of the regime."

Room or Office 39 is a branch of the North Korean regime that handles the country's illicit financial activities, according to the U.S. Treasury.

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