Russian Diplomats' Joyride out of N.Korea Unmasks Dire Reality

  • By Lee Yong-soo

    March 02, 2021 12:20

    A viral video clip of Russian diplomats fleeing North Korea by hand-operated rail trolley has contributed much to the gaiety of nations over yet another locked-down weekend.

    But behind their joyride across the Tumen River lies a more alarming story that saw North Korea abandoned even by its allies as supplies of daily necessities and other products dry up in the impoverished country after it sealed its borders.

    Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said as early as Feb. 8, "It's a challenge to buy even such basic goods as pasta, flour, vegetable oil, and sugar, and there are no decent clothes or footwear."

    "Over the past 12 to 18 months since their last visit home, children have grown a lot, so parents pass each other their cast-off clothing and footwear," Matsegora told the Interfax news agency.

    North Korea has official diplomatic ties with 161 countries, but fewer than 30 of them have diplomats in Pyongyang. The U.K., Germany and other West European countries closed down their embassies in the first half of last year, and only around 10 countries are still holding on.

    A Russian diplomat and his family leave North Korea on a hand-operated rail trolley on Feb. 26 in this picture from the Russian Foreign Ministry's Facebook page.

    On Feb. 19, Matsegora posted a message on Facebook describing a meager gathering of the ambassadors of China, Cuba, Syria, and Vietnam at the Indonesian Embassy.

    On Feb. 26,  the eight indomitable Russian staffers undertook the arduous 34-hour trip by train and bus out of Pyongyang and to the safety of freezing Vladivostok. To be fair, the trolley ride covered barely a kilometer over the Tumen bridge since no other transport was available, but it captured the imagination of the world.

    One diplomatic source said, "There appears to be consensus that conditions will become unbearable if the border closures continue. The remaining diplomatic missions will either downsize or temporarily close their offices."

    Ko Young-hwan, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea, said even during the great famine of the 1990s, diplomats in Pyongyang had no problems buying daily necessities at stores for foreign envoys. But due to the border closures, supplies of daily necessities have been completely severed.”

    Diplomats say the dire of foreign envoys cast a grim light on the suffering of ordinary North Koreans. Last year, North Korea’s trade plummeted 80 percent compared to 2019, but consumer prices and the currency exchange rate appear to remain fairly stable, possibly due to intervention by the government. 

    One source said, "It's difficult to buy imported goods like some seasonings, cosmetics and luxury products, but people don't seem to be starving there." That may be true in Pyongyang, but reports from the provinces tell a different story. One former high-ranking official who defected to South Korea said, "All supplies are diverted to Pyongyang where the elite military, government and party officials live. If this situation continues, the ability of the North Korean regime to avoid collapse will deteriorate quickly."

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