MOSCOW — North Korea sealed its borders more than a year ago because of the pandemic, grounding flights and shutting its frontier with neighboring China and Russia.
This week, a few Russian diplomats found a way out.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that eight employees and family members at its embassy in North Korea had taken an unusual route — one that included a bus ride and a trip on a hand-pushed railcar — to reach and cross the country’s border with Russia.
The group included the embassy’s third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, and his 3-year-old daughter, Varya, the ministry said on its official Facebook page. It posted a photograph showing three children sitting beside several large boxes and suitcases, with three adults pushing the railcar along the railroad tracks.
The ministry said the railcar had to be made specifically for the nearly mile-long trip, which included a bridge over the Tumannaya River.
When the group arrived at Khasan, a Russian border post in the country’s Far East, they were met by colleagues from the Foreign Ministry and taken to an airport in Vladivostok, the ministry said. In a separate statement, the ministry said the journey by railcar was the only possible way for the diplomats to cross the border.
Speaking on Friday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov — a career diplomat himself — said that the journey showed that diplomatic service can be “very rough and difficult” and that it only looks “very pretty and elegant” from the outside.
North Korea closed its borders in January 2020 for fear that a COVID-19 outbreak could overwhelm its public health system and damage an economy that was already struggling under international sanctions.
The country has also deployed troops along its border with China with “shoot to kill” orders to prevent smugglers from bringing in the coronavirus, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the U.S. military in South Korea, said in September.
The North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, declined international aid after devastating floods in the country last summer, citing similar fears of spreading the virus, the state news media reported.
But Kim is apparently willing to import COVID-19 vaccines. According to a report this month by COVAX, which is distributing vaccines internationally, North Korea is expected to receive nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca shot by the middle of this year, for a population of about 25 million.
The North’s state news media has long insisted that the country has no confirmed COVID-19 cases, but outside experts are skeptical.