Jan. 30 (UPI) -- North and South Korea agreed to temporarily shutter the inter-Korea liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, as Pyongyang steps up measures against the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in China, where 170 people have died, according to official Chinese estimates.
Seoul's unification ministry said Thursday the office has been closed, and all 58 South Korean staff were repatriated by evening, local television network MBC reported.
"The South and North have set up separate phone and fax lines," said ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min. "Communication will be maintained for the inter-Korea liaison office."
North Korea may have initiated the call for suspending operations for the office that first opened in September 2018 after an agreement signed at Panmunjom in April 2018.
The Kim Jong Un regime has declared a national emergency over the outbreak. On Thursday, Korean Workers' Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said containing the virus is a "significant political issue connected to national survival."
North Korea is also reporting news from the outside world. On Wednesday, Pyongyang network KCTV reported concern in the international community is "growing" after 5 million people were confirmed to have left the Chinese city of Wuhan before the city was shut down, and residents were prohibited from leaving.
North Korea's response to the virus first came on Jan. 22, when it banned foreign tourists. On Wednesday, state media said authorities are operating a "national emergency defense system" across the country to take in suspected patients.
Pyongyang is on alert at a time when its hospitals and population are ill equipped to fend off a deadly virus that has proven to be more contagious than severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003.
Kim Ji-eun, a North Korean defector who trained as a physician in the North, told Voice of America ordinary North Koreans have "very low immunity" against common diseases because of a long-running food shortage.
"They cannot control [the disease] if they are infected," Kim said.