Amid North Korea coronavirus shutdown, ambassador says diplomatic work on hold
Ongoing quarantine measures imposed by North Korean authorities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have left foreign embassies in Pyongyang unable to properly perform their duties and effectively cut off from the outside world, Russia’s ambassador to the DPRK was quoted as having said Thursday.
Writing in an op-ed for Russia’s TASS news agency, Ambassador Alexander Matsegora said that while he would not compare the situation to “a blockade,” a total of 254 Russian citizens were currently in North Korea, under quarantine and “forced to stay in their places of residence.”
“Since February 13, the work of all border crossings has been stopped — the country, we can say, has been completely isolated,” the Russian diplomat wrote. “As a result, a number of our colleagues are unable to return to their homeland… and several diplomats cannot come here from Russia to replace them, or return from vacation.”
Russia’s embassy, he said, had been forced to demand that the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) “immediately” rectify quarantine facilities in Rason, where two Russian workers had reportedly been placed in a cold room “with no hot water.”
Russia is not the first country to formally complain to DPRK authorities about the conditions imposed on their in-country staff, including a now-30-day quarantine period and an effective ban on free movement in the capital.
At least one other country with diplomatic representation in Pyongyang has now lodged a complaint with DPRK authorities over the treatment of its in-country staff, NK News understands.
Ambassador Matsegora in his article this week also said his embassy is having trouble receiving diplomatic mail, in addition to receiving goods such as furniture — ordered from China and Russia before the quarantine — that cannot cross the border into the North.
The Russian embassy has “not had any direct contact” with DPRK counterparts, he continued, reporting that all events and meetings have effectively been canceled or postponed.
“We do not have business meetings, conversations or negotiations, not only with [North] Koreans, but also with our fellow diplomats from other countries,” he said.
Staff at the embassy are “not allowed to walk in the city,” he continued, and cannot attend church or shop at Pyongyang’s “Russian store.”
In the event of an emergency, he stipulated, they are permitted to go to the hospital “accompanied by a Korean ambulance” after having their temperature checked.
“All other movement is illegal,” Matsegora said.
Despite these hardships, the situation concerning the “total transport blockade” has not yet “become critical,” the diplomat insisted.
“It will be much more difficult if the quarantine is extended,” he added. “We hope this will not happen.”
The ambassador’s remarks this week are a notably frank assessment of the situation on the ground in Pyongyang, where a near-total blockade on visitors and goods coming from abroad — as well as a strict quarantine regime — is now close to entering its fourth week.
“NOBODY INFECTED” IN NORTH KOREA, PYONGYANG INSISTS
North Korea has in response to the global spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) taken unprecedentedly strict quarantine measures, while repeatedly claiming that there are no confirmed cases within its territory.
Reiterating the ‘zero infections‘ claim on Friday, ruling party daily the Rodong Sinmun claimed public health officials were working on quarantine and hygiene propaganda efforts “with the self-awareness that even a minute breach can cause irrevocable consequences.”
Detailing the strict medical checkups required for those who recently visited foreign countries, the Rodong also reported on South Korea’s first reported death from the virus.
Thursday saw the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Korea jump to 156 overnight, compared to 104 the previous day.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s unification ministry on Friday said that no international organizations have formally requested it for help with humanitarian aid for North Korea, following a planned meeting between officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) and North Korean counterparts earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Asia reported on Thursday that the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) had asked the UN’s 1718 committee to provide a formal exemption from international sanctions that would allow a potential shipment of equipment aimed at COVID-19 prevention — reports neither organization has confirmed for the time being.
Fears abound that an outbreak of the coronavirus in North Korea could have a devastating impact, given the country’s notoriously-underfunded healthcare sector and the vulnerability of its people to an epidemic.
“Pyongyang does not have the financial and material resources to fight the epidemic,” ambassador Matsegora wrote on Thursday. “The level of development of the country’s [DPRK] health system is far from [meeting] modern requirements, which is largely due to the regime of sanctions against it.”
Anthony Rinna provided translation assistance
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Ongoing quarantine measures imposed by North Korean authorities to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus have left foreign embassies in Pyongyang unable to properly perform their duties and effectively cut off from the outside world, Russia's ambassador to the DPRK was quoted as having said Thursday.
Writing in an op-ed for Russia's TASS news agency, Ambassador Alexander Matsegora said that while he would not compare the situation to "a blockade," a total of 254 Russian citizens were currently in North Korea, under quarantine and "forced to stay in their places of residence."