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North Korea reportedly closing borders to tourists due to Ebola fears

North Korea reportedly closing borders to tourists due to Ebola fears
A hotel staff member stands at a reception desk decorated with a map of the world on the wall in Pyongyang on Oct. 23. North Korea has stepped up measures to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. (Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)

North Korea has decided to close its borders to tourists due to concerns over the Ebola virus, a tour company said Thursday.

The Beijing-based Koryo Tours said its partners had informed the company of the move. The duration of the closure was not known, Koryo said, but it expressed hope that tours planned for November and December will go ahead.

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"We are currently in discussions with our partners in Pyongyang and working hard to have this travel restriction on tourists lifted at the earliest opportunity," Nicholas Bonner of Koryo Tours said by email.

The website NK News reported three other companies that organize tours to North Korea had also received notifications about the closure.

It isn't known if North Korea has taken other measures to limit traffic in and out of its country, including over its 880-mile border with China, which is by far its largest trading partner.

On Sept. 24, North Korea's official media reported that a campaign to keep Ebola out of the country was being carried out. "At present, information activities and strict border quarantine are being conducted in the country," the Korean Central News Agency said.

The closure is not unprecedented, as North Korea temporarily closed its borders in 2003 for the stated reason of keeping out anyone carrying severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which had broken out in China.

But the sudden closure is somewhat inconsistent with North Korea's recent behavior. Over the last few years, the country has been making efforts to attract more Western tourists, and the number of visitors has been rising. Tour operators estimate there are between 4,000 and 6,000 visitors each year, figures believed to have increased significantly in recent years.

The announcement comes just days after Jeffrey E. Fowle of Ohio was freed from North Korea following six months of detention. Fowle was arrested after leaving a Bible in a hotel, and his return may provide a glimmer of hope to two other Americans who are still in North Korea.

Fowle had not been indicted on his charges, but the other two U.S. citizens, Matthew Miller of Bakersfield and Kenneth Bae from the Seattle area, have been tried and convicted on charges of "hostile acts" and are now serving multi-year sentences of hard labor.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.

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