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North Korea’s Ebola Response Mirrors ‘World War Z’

When word spreads in Max Brooks’s 2006 dystopian novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War that zombies are infesting the world, North Korea acts decisively, sealing its borders and hustling its people into mysterious bunkers. "No country was better prepared to repel the infestation than North Korea," says Hyungchol Choi, the ...

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

When word spreads in Max Brooks’s 2006 dystopian novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War that zombies are infesting the world, North Korea acts decisively, sealing its borders and hustling its people into mysterious bunkers. "No country was better prepared to repel the infestation than North Korea," says Hyungchol Choi, the fictional deputy director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. "Rivers to the north, oceans to the east and west, and to the south … the most heavily fortified border on Earth."

Now, as a far less apocalyptic virus completely unrelated to zombies spreads, North Korea is closing its borders. On Thursday, Oct. 23, North Korea notified foreign tour operators that visitors are now banned. "The reason given was Ebola, and I can’t think of any other reason, as they don’t arbitrarily close the border," Simon Cockerell, managing director of the tour operator Koryo Tours, told USA Today.

It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t have to be said, but the current Ebola outbreak is not the zombie apocalypse. Still, that notion is surprisingly resonating — so much so that World War Z author Brooks, the son of comedian Mel Brooks, wrote he has been "repeatedly asked if the current outbreak of Ebola is the real-life incarnation of my novel." He continues, "As much as any author would love to crow about how ‘I predicted this!’, this time, I’m happy to say, my fictional plague could not be more different from the truth."

In Brooks’s novel, North Korea is protected from the zombies ravaging the planet because it can withdraw from the world. About a month before zombies spread to South Korea, the North severs communication with the South, closes its borders, and seems to send its entire population underground. It’s unclear exactly what happens, but Choi thinks that the people of North Korea evacuate to subterranean complexes and probably stay safe from the plague as a result. (In the 2013 film, an ex-CIA operative claims North Korea survives by removing everyone’s teeth. "Brilliant," he says. "No bite, no great spread.")

It’s unclear why Pyongyang has cut itself off from tourists and whether the ban includes foreign businesspeople and diplomats. It’s possible that North Korea truly fears the disease. This is not the first time it has taken such action in apparent response to a public health emergency: When in 2003 the respiratory virus SARS hit Beijing, North Korea instituted a tourism travel ban that lasted for roughly four months. Perhaps this time around Pyongyang wants an excuse to keep people away for the winter, when conditions in the impoverished nation are especially grim and heating is not widely available.

In World War Z, the reader never finds out what happened to North Korea. Choi worries that despite North Korea’s extreme response, the infection spread anyway: "Maybe those caverns are teeming with twenty-three million zombies, emaciated automatons howling in the darkness and just waiting to be unleashed."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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