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With North Korea's Border Closed To Trains, Russian Diplomats Push Their Way Out

In this photo posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry Facebook page, Third Secretary Vladislav Sorokin of the Russian Embassy in North Korea pushes a handcart toward the North Korea-Russia border.
Russian Foreign Ministry/Facebook
In this photo posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry Facebook page, Third Secretary Vladislav Sorokin of the Russian Embassy in North Korea pushes a handcart toward the North Korea-Russia border.

SEOUL, South Korea — In a sign of how tough it is to cross North Korea's tightly sealed borders during the pandemic, eight Russian Embassy staff were forced to exit the country by manual propulsion, piling their suitcases and family members onto a handcart, and pushing them down the rails and over the border into Russia.

The exodus completed Thursday saw the Russians travel 32 hours by train and then two hours by bus from the capital, Pyongyang, to the Tumannaya River, where the borders of North Korea, China and Russia meet.

But North Korea will not permit trains to cross the border for fear of spreading the coronavirus. So the "engine" for the last mile or so of the journey was none other than Vladislav Sorokin, the embassy's third secretary, who according to a Russian Foreign Ministry Facebook post shoved the handcart over a bridge and across the river. It said the youngest passenger was Sorokin's 3-year-old daughter, Varya.

Foreign Ministry colleagues met the travelers on the Russian side of the border, the post added, and took them to the Vladivostok airport for onward travel.

North Korea shut its borders in January 2020, confined foreign diplomats and staff of international organizations to Pyongyang and made it increasingly difficult to rotate personnel in and out of the country.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Matsegora was quoted as telling Russian media earlier this month that the remaining diplomats in Pyongyang have been barred from using public transportation or visiting parks and museums, and struggle to purchase basic foodstuffs.

Those diplomats who could departed the country in groups, shutting down embassies, leaving few foreign witnesses to events in North Korea and making the distribution of humanitarian aid nearly impossible.

The World Food Programme said in a recent revision to its operational plan that "there is a significant residual risk that, should food imports not be possible, operations will cease in 2021." Roughly 40% of North Korea's population suffers from severe food shortages.

North Korean border guards were reportedly ordered to shoot to kill anyone crossing the country's borders without authorization. In September, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean fishery official at sea, and burned his body amid speculation that the official intended to defect.

North Korea has reported to the World Health Organization that it has tested thousands of people for the virus, yet claims not to have a single case. Experts and defectors from North Korea are skeptical about the claim, because they say the country has a poor track record of keeping previous epidemics out of the country.

An outbreak could be devastating in North Korea, where some local hospitals are so poorly equipped they lack even running water.

North Korea told the WHO near the end of 2020 that it had tested about 26,000 samples from more than 13,000 people since the start of the pandemic, in a country of nearly 26 million. After that, they inexplicably stopped reporting the number of samples tested.

North Korea is expected to receive in the first half of this year nearly two million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, produced in India and distributed by the COVAX program, which secures vaccines for poor countries.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.