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N. Koreans in Middle East Told to Stay Put Over MERS Fears

FILE - A South Korean official, left, uses a thermal camera to checks the body temperature of a driver as a precaution against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) after he returned from Kaesong, North Korea, near Panmunjom, South Korea, June 13, 2015.

North Korea ordered its diplomats and workers stationed in the Middle East to temporarily remain there as fears grow about Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has killed at least 24 people in South Korea.

A South Korean official, who asked to remain anonymous, told VOA's Korean Service that Pyongyang took the measure in an attempt to keep the virus from spreading into the North.

“North Koreans must have feared the spread considerably as their health care system is so vulnerable,” the official said.

So far, the travel restriction appears limited to the Middle East countries where the virus has been prevalent.

Another South Korean official said it was not clear if the North banned its citizens from returning home from other countries.

It is estimated that 50,000 North Korean laborers are working in 16 countries around the world.

No international requests for aid

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it has not received any request for assistance to deal with MERS from the North.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the U.N. agency was not informed of the North’s travel restriction, adding the agency is against such a measure.

“WHO does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions,” Lindmeier said.

Last week, the North asked the South to limit South Koreans visits to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, an inter-Korean business park, as a precaution against MERS.

About 1,000 South Koreans travel to and from the facility each day. The South provided masks and quarantine equipment, including thermal scanners, at the North’s request.

Last October, North Korea imposed a travel ban on foreigners and enforced a three-week quarantine for nearly everyone entering the country because of concerns over the Ebola virus. The restrictions were lifted earlier this year.

The MERS outbreak in South Korea is the biggest outside of Saudi Arabia, where the virus was first detected in 2012.

The outbreak has killed 24 people and infected 166 people.

Hyunjin Kim and Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report from Washington.