By train, bus, and railroad handcart — that’s how Russian diplomats working in North Korea eventually made it home after a grueling 34-hour journey this week.
The employees of Russia’s embassy in Pyongyang left the country amid worsening conditions brought on by the government’s harsh coronavirus measures, including bans on everything from hard currency to foreign cargo.
According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which posted about the trip on Facebook Thursday, the departing group included eight embassy employees and their families. In two photographs accompanying the post, the embassy’s third secretary Vladislav Sorokin is shown pushing his young children and the family’s luggage down railway tracks on a handcart, which they used to reach the Russian border with North Korea.
The Russian foreign ministry also published video footage of the surreal journey, which evoked cinematic depictions of bygone eras more than a border crossing in 2021.
“The most important part of the route was a pedestrian crossing to the Russian side. They needed to prepare a cart in advance, put it on rails, place the luggage, seat the children and set off,” the Foreign Ministry said, according to The Moscow Times.
North Korea, in a bid to shield its people and poor health system from the pandemic, has halted all train and air transport to neighboring countries and even prohibited imports from China, where the virus was first discovered more than one year ago.
Its government claims that not a single person has contracted the virus since the outbreak began, a claim Korea watchers say is unlikely.
Regardless, there are few ways into and out of the country and even fewer foreigners who want to stay. A year ago, 13 Russian Embassy employees were flown out of North Korea as the lockdown began. It was unclear why the diplomats who departed this week stayed in Pyongyang.
Even when North Korea’s trains are running properly, the infrastructure is rickety. Ahn Byung-min, a South Korean railway expert, told The Washington Post in 2018 that he had not seen improvements in North Korea’s railroads over more than 40 visits since 2000. “I’d say it’s got worse,” he said. Some of his travel in the country reminded him of the runaway mine cart in the film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” he said.
The United States and United Nations have put stringent sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons programs and human rights abuses. Critics, however, say that the sanctions have contributed to a dire humanitarian situation inside the country while not leading to political change.
Earlier this month a group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration to conduct an analysis of U.S. sanctions and reassess those limiting a country’s access to coronavirus vaccines and other COVID-19 related resources.