Russian diplomats leave North Korea in hand-held rail car due to Covid-19 restrictions

North Korea’s borders have been effectively closed for months as part of the Kim Jongun regime’s efforts to keep Covid-19 away and stifle some diplomats in Pyongyang. North Korean state-owned airline Air Koryo is launching flights from Vladivostok in eastern Russia, but these flights have also been suspended for months.

The maze trip was the only way for Russian diplomats and their families to leave the country, the Russian embassy said on a verified Facebook page.

The journey began by train. The Russians spent 32 hours on North Korea’s old, poorly maintained and notoriously slow rail system. They then took a bus for two hours to the border, where families had to assign a rail car to their luggage and push for the rest of the way.

The car, also known as a handcart, is a railroad car popularized in the 1800s that is driven by its passengers with a pump-operated lever, or people push the car by hand from behind.

The embassy posted two pictures of Vladislav Sorokin, third secretary, pushing his family and luggage on the rails while wearing thick winter clothing. The youngest in the crew was Sorokin’s 3-year-old daughter, Varya.

Sorokin had to push the handcart for a mile, part of which included a bridge across the Tumen River that separates Russia from North Korea.

After the family reached the Russian station in Khasan, they were met by colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who helped them get to Vladivostok Airport.

Vladimir Sorokin had to push the car about 1 kilometer.

Additional isolation

The departure of the Sorokin family and other Russian diplomats means that Pyongyang’s already small émigré community, a valuable source of information about one of the world’s most retreating and secretive countries, is shrinking even further.

Diplomats, aid workers and NGO staff decided to leave North Korea instead of being interrupted by the country’s inflexible and strict border controls. Foreigners who choose to stay in North Korea have described an increasingly dire situation in Pyongyang: food is running out of food in stores and people are losing their jobs, says North Korean Russian ambassador Alexander Matsegora.

North Korea has decided to sever almost all of its ties with the outside world in 2020 to prevent the influx of coronavirus cases. Experts believe Kim decided because she recognizes that her country’s ruined health system is flooded with an epidemic.

Matsegora said North Korean imports have come to an almost complete halt since devastating typhoons struck the Korean Peninsula in September. “The North Korean leader has openly admitted that there is no state-of-the-art medical infrastructure here that meets modern requirements and can handle this problem,” Interfax said in an interview with the Russian news agency.

Kim’s strategy seems to work from a public health perspective. North Korea has not reported a severe outbreak of Covid-19, and there is no indication that this has happened, although experts question Pyongyang’s claim that the country has not seen any viral cases.

Food shortage

The decision to end almost all of Beijing’s trade, which is an economic lifeline that an impoverished country needs to keep its people from starving, has brought the North Korean economy closer to the brink of collapse than it has been for decades.

“Our life in Pyongyang was not easy,” Matsegora said. “During the months of self-isolation, the stock available on the shelves has been reduced to a minimum. It is even a challenge to buy basic goods like pasta, flour, vegetable oil and sugar and there are no decent clothes or footwear. If something can be bought, it usually costs three to four times more. than before the crisis. “

Matsegora’s remarks were surprising, given that North Korea has closer ties with Russia than almost any country except China. While Kim and other North Korean leaders have admitted that the country’s economy is suffering from the virus, they have not admitted that food supplies are under pressure.

In North Korea, about 10.3 million people – more than 40% of the population – are malnourished, writes the World Food Program (WFP). WFP said its North Korean operations were “intermittent” last year due to border closures, and warned that this year’s operations could be in jeopardy.

Kun Li, a WFP spokesman, said the organization was “not going out of business” in North Korea, but had faced challenges faced by many industries during the pandemic.

“Our work has never stopped. Despite the challenges of food aid delivery and stockpiling due to Covid-19’s containment measures, we imported a limited amount of food in 2020 and more than 500,000 people, including vulnerable women and children also got food and nutritional help, “Li said in a statement. “Our work will be continued by our Pyongyang national staff and international staff, from where they will be temporarily established.”

CNN’s Jake Kwon and Ivan Watson contributed to this report.