SEOUL/VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - North Korea flew dozens of diplomats out of the country to Russia on Monday, including the staff of the German, French and Swiss missions which were shut amid concern in the isolated country about the possible spread of the coronavirus.
North Korea has not reported any cases of the illness, despite bordering China where the epidemic started and South Korea which is suffering a major outbreak. Pyongyang has reinforced border checks and ordered foreigners from any country that has reported a case to spend 30 days in quarantine.
Diplomats who were flown on Monday to Vladivostok, a Russian port on the Pacific Ocean, said North Koreans now wear face masks and are clearly concerned about the spread of the disease.
“There is a certain tension in the city and all of the country because people are aware of the coronavirus. They have it in their media, so it’s the biggest issue they are dealing with at the moment,” Pit Heltmann, Germany’s ambassador, told reporters after arriving in Vladivostok.
Klaus Stross, the German embassy’s first secretary, said he had not witnessed any disruptions to construction projects or public life in the country. He said that 103 people — 63 foreigners and 40 North Koreans — had been on the flight, serviced by North Korea’s Air Koryo airline.
“Everybody is hoping for flights to resume, for the borders to reopen, but in Pyongyang you don’t feel any restrictions,” he said. “The people are wearing masks, but that’s about all.”
The Russian embassy said the group flown to Russia on Monday included the full staff of the German, French and Swiss missions, 13 staff and family members from Russia’s own embassy, as well as diplomats from Poland, Romania, Mongolia and Egypt. Aid workers and businessmen were also on the flight.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea (DPRK), urged Pyongyang on Monday to allow full access for medical and humanitarian experts. He said Pyongyang was making extensive efforts to prevent an outbreak, but its ill-nourished population would be particularly at risk.
“As the Supreme Leader of the country recently recognised, a widespread infection in the DPRK would entail serious consequences for the people,” Quintana told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, referring to Kim Jong-un.
“The reality is that many North Koreans are malnourished, suffering from stunted growth, and thus more vulnerable if infected.”
Britain’s ambassador to North Korea, Colin Crooks, tweeted earlier in the day: “Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and French Office in North Korea which are closing temporarily.”
“British Embassy remains open,” he added.
Germany has an embassy in North Korea. France does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea but runs an office to foster exchanges.
Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, Joachim Bergstrom, last week posted a picture on Twitter of himself in Pyongyang, and said he was happy to be out of the compound where he was quarantined for a month.
North Korea, slapped with U.N. Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear and missile programmes, launched multiple short-range projectiles into the sea on Monday, a week after it resumed missile tests following a three-month break, South Korea’s military said. [nL4N2B10RG]
Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Reuters television in Vladivostok and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Peter Graff