South Korea has agreed to provide North Korea with three thermal scanners for use at the inter-Korean joint industrial complex in the North’s Kaesong city, amid concerns over Seoul’s ability to control the spread of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said Thursday that it will lease North Korea the scanners for use in the Kaesong complex to detect anyone showing signs of the disease, such as a high fever, as the number of confirmed cases in the South rose to 35.
The ministry said the decision had been made following a request by North Korea two days earlier for the equipment, as well as masks for the 300-400 South Koreans and 52,000 North Koreans who work in Kaesong, to prevent the spread of infection at the industrial zone.
It said the measures were preventive, as North Korea had not reported any cases of MERS, a virus in the same family as the common cold, but which is not believed to spread easily between humans.
A South Korean ministry official added that North Korea was “unlikely to take measures such as restricting the number of people entering the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” despite concerns over the spread of the disease in the South.
As of Thursday, there have been 35 confirmed and 601 suspected cases of MERS in South Korea since the outbreak was first reported on May 23, according to the national MERS task force under the country’s Department of Health. More than 1,600 people are in quarantine.
Kim Yong Hyon, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, told RFA’s Korean Service that while North Korea may not restrict its citizens from working in the Kaesong complex, it could take other measures to try to prevent MERS from entering the country.
“There is the possibility that North Korea will restrict South Koreans from entering the Kaeseong Industrial Complex or might not allow the North Korean cheering squad to attend the Summer Universiade [sports tournament] in Kwangju, South Korea,” he said.
“But in any case, I expect that if South Korea supports North Korea’s quarantine system, inter-Korean relations are likely to improve.”
Seoul also set up thermal scanners in Kaesong last year during the Ebola outbreak and in 2009 over concerns about avian flu.
A respiratory illness with flu-like symptoms that can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure, MERS was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The outbreak in South Korea is currently the largest outside of Saudi Arabia.
There is no known cure or vaccine and, on average, one in four people infected with the virus die as a result.
North Korea has taken particularly strict measures in response to epidemics in the past, closing its borders to foreign tourists and implementing a 21-day quarantine on anyone entering the country during last year’s Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.
Watchers of North Korea believe the country is particularly concerned about an outbreak of MERS, as the regime has sent thousands of workers to the Middle East in recent years.
As of 2013, North Korea is known to have dispatched some 2,000 workers to Qatar, 4,000 to Kuwait, 1,000 to the United Arab Emirates and 250 to Libya.
Reported by Songwu Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.