North Koreans stranded in Libya after ban on return

North Korea has reportedly banned 200 of its nationals in Libya from returning home amid fears that they may import the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. Hundreds more North Korean citizens, including construction workers and nurses throughout the Middle East, have also been told to stay put, according to reports in the South Korean media.

Pyongyang refuses to accept the legitimacy of Libya's transitional government and has maintained a strict blackout of the Arab Spring uprisings, the South's Yonhap news agency reported this week. Less than 1 per cent of the North's population, mainly senior cadres, has heard anything about the uprisings, claims The Korea Herald in an editorial this week.

The North's government had strong links to Libya before the uprising and sold rockets and other weapons used to suppress anti-government protests. With Gaddafi gone, the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, is among a dwindling band of absolute rulers who retains an iron grip over the media, civil society and the government. The North's state-controlled media predicted that the Libyan rebels, whom it dubbed "traitors", would be crushed and said Gaddafi was duped by the West in 2003 when he scrapped a nuclear weapons programme in exchange for foreign aid.

Yonhap said the order to stay in Libya was relayed in a letter sent to the North Korean embassy in the country, telling its nationals to "follow the measures of the Libyan government". North Koreans in Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also appear unlikely to be able to return home while anti-government protests continue in the region, said the agency.

The move is being seen as further evidence that the Kim regime's response to the string of Middle East revolutions has been to tighten the screws at home. The North's government has recently strengthened control over mobile phones, computers and foreign popular culture which has for years been creeping into the country from the South, via China.

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