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North Korea’s reaction to Ebola makes fears of a zombie apocalypse look rational

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Turns out North Korea wasn’t kidding about protecting itself from Ebola. Kim Jong Un’s regime is not taking any chances when it comes to keeping out the virus – despite the fact that it’s happening half a world away and that North Korea is the most closed state in the world.

After last week closing its borders to the few groups of tourists who enter the country, Pyongyang has imposed a 21-day mandatory quarantine period for arrivals from abroad and it also appears to have banned the few citizens who are allowed out of the country from going anywhere.

Plus, they’ve sharply restricted movements inside the country – which already strictly polices who can move around the place even internally.

Even by the standards of the most authoritarian regime out there, North Korea’s Ebola response appears excessive.

Looking at some of the pictures coming out of North Korea, you could be excused thinking that it is Ground Zero for the virus. Korean Central Television this week showed footage of men in hazmat suits spraying the sleeping berths of the Moscow-Pyongyang train.

And a delegation of Japanese diplomats arriving in Pyongyang this week for official talks about a decades-old abduction dispute were greeted at the capital’s Sunan airport by men similar gear.

First things first: the tourist ban. Last week North Korea abruptly told the handful of travel companies bringing western tourists into the country that all tours would be indefinitely suspended. Most have had all their November tours canceled and are waiting to hear about December. The ban also extends to Chinese tourists, who make up the bulk of visitors to Pyongyang, by far.

Then on Thursday, North Korea announced all foreigners – including diplomats, and regardless of where they’re coming – arriving in the country will be quarantined for 21 days. That’s more than three times the length of the average tour.

“All foreign nationals who are entering from Ebola affected areas are to be quarantined at the Chongchongang Hotel in the city of Anju, North Pyongan Province for a period of 21 days under medical observation,” Uri Tours, one of the agencies operating in North Korea, posted on its Web site.

“Foreign nationals who enter from all other areas will also be quarantined for a period of 21 days but at the hotels in which they originally intended to stay,” Uri Tours said.

Diplomats and foreign aid workers will be quarantined in their missions or residences.

The state-run Pyongyang Radio station said that North Korea was “doubling” its efforts to detect infected patients, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Tourism is considered a major source of foreign currency for North Korea, so the ban underscores the gravity with which they’re viewing the Ebola scare.

But it’s not just foreigners who are considered potential carriers of the deadly virus.

The Daily NK, a news site that carries reports from within North Korea, said that the authorities have placed travel restrictions on those entering Pyongyang.

“In order to prevent transmission of the Ebola virus, a central command office for hygiene and quarantine has been set up,” a source in North Hamgyung Province told the Daily NK. “They have also been placing limits on travel permits for people in regional areas since mid-October to try to curb entry into Pyongyang.”

People wanting to go to Pyongyang on personal business, such as for family events, are being denied entry to the capital, while state officials now have to go through a cumbersome process involving getting an epidemiological certificate from the provincial quarantine office, the site reported.

And then there’s the crackdown on going out into the toxic world.

Only a very select group of North Koreans is allowed to travel outside the country at the best of times – generally only senior apparatchiks, diplomats or businessmen who can make money for the regime – but now even fewer North Koreans being allowed out.

Chosun Exchange, a group that runs training programs for North Korean officials, reports that North Koreans are apparently not allowed abroad. A group that had been set to travel to seminars in Singapore last week was abruptly grounded.

“Is this a misreading of the Ebola threat? Is it a genuine fear that they could not deal with a single case of Ebola? Is it a message for the domestic audience?,” Geoffrey See, founder of Chosun Exchange, wrote in a post on the organization’s  Web site, saying they were still trying to figure out what was going on.

The whole situation recalls a line uttered by Hyungchol Choi, the fictional director of the South Korean intelligence service in Max Brooks’s 2006 dystopian novel World War Z, See wrote.

"No country was better prepared to repel the infestation than North Korea," Choi said in the book, although he was commenting on a zombie apocalypse outbreak, not Ebola.

“While a complete shutdown of the borders to all travel, even to places with no record of Ebola or Zombieism, is completely within North Korea’s rights, the manner in which these measures were rolled out leaves much to be desired,” See wrote, noting the poor way the clampdown was communicated.

Yes, so bizarre is North Korea’s reaction to Ebola that even zombie apocalypse analogies make sense here.