The embassy said in a statement on its official Facebook page that there are now only 290 expatriates within North Korea, including just nine ambassadors and four charge d’affaires. All foreign personnel working for NGOs and humanitarian organizations have left the country.
“Not everyone can withstand the unprecedented severity of total restrictions, the acute shortage of necessary goods, including medicines (and) the lack of opportunities to solve health problems,” the embassy said in the post, which also wished some 38 foreign citizens well after they finished their post-North Korea quarantine in China.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia had one of the biggest diplomatic missions in North Korea, but its presence has dwindled recently. Months of living with strict public health measures and coping with extreme shortages of “necessary goods,” including medicine appear to have taken a toll.
North Korea’s borders have been effectively locked down for months as part of the Kim Jong Un regime’s efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay, stranding the few diplomats operating inside Pyongyang.
North Korean state-owned airline Air Koryo operates flights from Vladivostok in eastern Russia, but the route has also been suspended for months. Leaving North Korea is reportedly quite difficult. In February, several Russian diplomats spent more than 34 hours trying to exit the country, a grueling trip that ended with at least one envoy pushing his luggage and young children on a railway trolley.
Experts believe Kim decided to sever almost all of North Korea’s ties with the outside world because he recognized his country’s dilapidated healthcare system would be overwhelmed by a Covid-19 outbreak.
Kim’s strategy appears to have worked from a public health standpoint. North Korea has not reported a major outbreak of Covid-19, and there have been no indications one has taken place, though experts doubt Pyongyang’s claim the country has not seen a single case of the virus.
Diplomats, aid workers and NGO staff have chosen to leave North Korea rather than risk being stranded due to the country’s inflexible and strict border controls — shrinking Pyongyang’s already small expatriate community, a valuable source of information on one of the world’s most reclusive and secretive countries. However, Russian diplomats have helped fill in some of the gaps in their descriptions of life on the ground in the North Korean capital.
Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said recently that grocery stores began running out of food following Pyongyang’s decision to almost entirely stop imports in September. The comments were surprising, given North Korea enjoys closer relations with Russia than it does with almost any other country except China.
While Kim and other North Korean leaders have admitted the country’s economy is suffering due to the virus, they have not admitted its food supply is under strain.