Russian Diplomats Flee North Korea by Hand-Powered Rail Cart

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Russian Diplomats Flee North Korea by Hand-Powered Rail Cart

MOSCOW—Russian diplomats stuck in North Korea for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic embarked this week on a remarkable odyssey to get home, traveling by bus, train—and hand-powered rail cart.

A group of eight people from Russia’s embassy in Pyongyang along with their family members set off earlier this week on a “long and difficult journey” to return to Russia, said the Russian foreign ministry on Friday.

For just over a year, the diplomats had been unable to leave North Korea after Pyongyang sealed its borders due to the coronavirus. Deciding to leave on their own, the group traveled 32 hours by train and an additional two hours by bus to reach the North Korean-Russian border.

Then came “the most challenging part”—crossing into Russia, the foreign ministry wrote on Facebook. To do this, the group mounted a specially made wooden cart onto rail tracks, loaded it with their belongings—including their children—and “off they went,” pushing the railcar by hand for close to a mile until it entered Russian territory, the ministry said.

The group of Russians included the embassy’s third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, and his 3-year-old daughter Varya, who was the group’s youngest traveler, the ministry said.

Incredible Journey

Russian diplomats travel by train, bus and railway cart to leave North Korea

Vladivostok

Bus to airport

Khasan

(see enlarged

area below)

34 hours by train and bus

Sea of

Japan

Pushed wooden cart over bridge

Tumannaya River

A photograph posted on Facebook by the ministry showed three adults pushing the makeshift cart along the tracks with three children sitting behind large suitcases and boxes, perched on what appears to be a bright red padded bench.

The travelers pushed the cart across a bridge over the Tumannaya River and eventually arrived at the Russian border station in Khasan, a settlement in the country’s Far East, where they were met by officials from the foreign ministry office in Vladivostok.

The regional administration then provided a bus, “which delivered the compatriots…to the Vladivostok airport” and they headed to Moscow on Friday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters Friday that a diplomatic career “is very difficult and challenging.”

“It may look nice and elegant, when, in fact, this career is very tough, intense, a complete ordeal,” he added. “Episodes of this kind may also happen sometimes.”

Calls for comment on the Russian diplomats’ journey to the North Korean embassy in Moscow were unanswered.

Mr. Sorokin, the third secretary, told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that the border guards who met them in Khasan “had such expressions, as if they see these carts every day, which, of course, is not the case.”

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station that the route taken by the embassy personnel was the most efficient. The alternative would be to travel through China. In that case, however, they would have had to quarantine for three weeks and “the journey would take a month,” she said.

Ms. Zakharova said the foreign ministry had “turned to Pyongyang with a request to help our diplomats” several times but unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time it was necessary for Russian nationals to leave North Korea by rail cart, she said.

Anastasia Chernitskaya, press attaché of the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, told the Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, the trolley was made by the RasonConTrans construction joint venture between Russia and North Korea. A representative of the company told the news agency that the railway car was specifically made for the emergency transportation of people across the bridge over the Tumannaya River, the news agency reported.

The embassy employees’ dramatic journey comes as North Korea appears particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, due to the country’s poverty and weak healthcare infrastructure.

Sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council after Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear tests block imports of metal objects and computers, creating barriers for certain medical tools and equipment. The regime’s access to foreign banks is also restricted.

North Korea has reported zero coronavirus infections, but at the same time has asked several European embassies how it might obtain the vaccines, according to an exclusive report in The Wall Street Journal last month. 

The country has submitted an application to receive the Covid-19 virus shot from World Health Organization-supported Covax, a global alliance helping lower-income countries secure vaccines, the Journal reported.

Russia and North Korea are longtime allies, and the Kremlin has urged the United Nations to consider easing sanctions.

Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, said on the embassy’s Facebook page earlier this month that “thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, [North Korea] turned out to be the only country which didn’t get the infection.” He added that he has “no doubt” that if even one Covid-19 case had been discovered in Pyongyang, the embassy would have been shut down.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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