Red Cross Pulls Foreign Staff Out of North Korea as Quarantine Measures Intensify

Red Cross Pulls Foreign Staff Out of North Korea as Quarantine Measures Intensify A file photo of the German Embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Yonhap News

The last remaining foreign Red Cross staff left North Korea this week, the latest departure in the exodus of aid workers and diplomats from the country due to increasingly strict measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the aid organization said.

The move follows similar withdrawals by other humanitarian organizations over the past year, as the pandemic has limited their ability to effectively monitor and distribute aid in the impoverished country that has relied on outside help to overcome food and medicine shortages for a quarter century since a deadly mid-1990s famine.

International arrivals were stopped in January when Beijing and Pyongyang closed their borders and suspended all trade. Aid organizations found it difficult to bring in funds and supplies as a result.

Then in February, authorities mandated that diplomats and foreign aid workers stay within certain designated areas of the North Korean capital, limiting their effectiveness.

In a statement, the International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) said that despite the departure of its international staff, the organization is not leaving North Korea permanently.

“They have completed their assignments in the DPRK. They will be going to their home countries to reunited with their families,” the ICRC’s deputy head of delegation for East Asia, Graziella Leite Piccoli, said.

The ICRC’s activities in North Korea will be managed by its Beijing office, she said.

South-Korea based NK News reported Wednesday that the ICRC personnel were part of a group of about 40 diplomats and humanitarian workers who exited North Korea by river crossing through Dandong, China.

The group, which also included 10 Russians, eight United Nations workers, Iran’s ambassador, and the last of the Polish diplomats, will quarantine for two weeks in Dandong before traveling further.

Another large group left North Korea in November, including 15 expat Bulgarians, Romanians and Iranians, and 12 Chinese diplomats, the report said.

At the beginning of 2020, 50 UN personnel, 11 Red Cross staff and 13 NGO workers who were in Pyongyang, according to NK News. Following the most recent departure, only three UN-system workers from abroad remain in the country.

But the UN is not withdrawing from the country, Eri Kaneko, an associate spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General, told RFA’s Korean Service Friday, offering an explanation similar to that of the Red Cross for the sharp decrease in personnel.

“After a year in North Korea, the remaining UN international staff are travelling home to see their families,” she said.

“International staff are expected to return to Pyongyang as soon as COVID-19-related entry restrictions are lifted in 2021… All UN offices remain open and functioning.” she said.

The remaining UN international staff in North Korea are two World Food Program representatives and one member of the Ireland-based Concern Worldwide NGO.

The lack of presence in the country will likely be disastrous for the North Korean people, according to Jerome Sauvage, a former UN resident coordinator for the country.

“As you know, half of the population suffers from malnutrition, and the assistance from the UN and the NGOs is in some cases the only source of support that they get. And now that will not happen. So, it's an extremely sad situation,” he said.

Sauvage said that confining all expats inside Pyongyang had hindered UN activities by preventing personnel from monitoring and evaluating projects. But now that they are gone, the effects of their departure will be felt long after the pandemic has ended.

“We will have to basically wait until there is no more COVID in the area… that means some time in the middle or end of next year. These programs take a long time to restart, these offices are not taken care of when there's nobody inside and it's going to take a long time,” Sauvage said.

In March, Switzerland recalled humanitarian staff at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Pyongyang.  

“SDC continued its operations remotely, albeit under current conditions with a much-reduced scope,” Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, spokesman of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, told RFA Friday

“SDC remains committed to resuming its humanitarian activities in the DPR Korea in full as soon as conditions allow it,” he said.

Katharina Zellweger, who lived in Pyongyang for five years as the SDC’s country director for North Korea, said that the agency had been facing difficulties since the pandemic began.

“It's difficult to do anything… because of the lack of funding and the strict quarantine measures and then also the inability to import goods, because Chinese and North Korean borders are closed. So, you know, the problem has many facets,” she said.

“But of course, I do worry that life is even more difficult for ordinary citizens—the vulnerable people, children, the sick, old people with disabilities,” Zellweger said.

Embassy closures

In March, the German, Swedish and UK Embassies in Pyongyang temporarily shuttered their doors and recalled diplomats due to a government-mandated quarantine of all foreigners. France, which operates a cooperation office in Pyongyang, also withdrew.

“The Federal Government [of Germany] regrets that the majority of the international community has been forced to leave North Korea due to disproportional anti-COVID-19 measures introduced by the People’s Republic of North Korea,” an official of the German foreign ministry RFA Friday.

“The Federal Government hopes that the situation will evolve in a way that will allow Germany to resume its presence in North Korea as soon as possible,” he said.

RFA attempted to contact the governments of several countries that have established diplomatic relations with North Korea.

The governments of Russia, China, Sweden, the UK, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, did not respond as of Friday evening, while a representative of Austria’s foreign ministry told RFA that the ministry was not aware of any Austrians in the country.

Reported by Kyung Ha Rhee and Erin Ji for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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