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N Korea at crossroads

Foreign diplomats flee North Korea amid food and drug shortages

Pyongyang's yearlong border closure with China raises starvation fears

Russian diplomats and family members use a hand-pushed rail trolley to leave North Korea. (Photo from Russian foreign ministry's Telegram account)   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- Diplomats and humanitarian group workers stationed in North Korea are leaving in droves due to acute shortages of food, medical supplies and other essentials, as a yearlong lockdown of the border with China plunges the isolated country's economy into chaos.

The Russian Embassy in Pyongyang reported a "collective exit" of diplomatic missions from North Korea in a Facebook post Thursday. The representative offices for 12 countries including the U.K., Venezuela, Brazil and Germany are locked, and foreign staffers at international humanitarian organizations have all left the country, according to the post.

The Russian Foreign Ministry in February also released a video of its diplomats and their families crossing the border from North Korea on a hand-pushed trolley.

Ambassadors from nine countries including Russia, China and Cuba reportedly remain and are continuing their duties in North Korea.

Embassies in Pyongyang have reported a lack of essential items in the country through social media and other channels since the beginning of the year. The Russian Embassy in Thursday's post said the lack of drugs meant health problems cannot be addressed in North Korea.

North Korea essentially closed its border with main trading partner China in January 2020 to try to keep out the coronavirus. But the closure has led to severe shortages spreading throughout North Korean society.

At a Workers' Party meeting in February, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said coal production had come to a halt due to a lack of electricity. A major chemical complex also was forced to shut down because of a lack of replacement parts.

Widespread flooding last summer exacerbated Pyongyang's woes. South Korea's National Intelligence Service estimates that the North faces a grain shortage of 1 million tons.

"North Korea is close to running out of food, and we could hear reports of people starving to death by May," said Jeong Se-hyun, executive vice chair of South Korea's National Unification Advisory Council and a former minister for unification.

However, North Korea might resume trade with China as early as this month.

Pyongyang appointed former Vice Premier Ri Ryong Nam as its new ambassador to Beijing in February. In late March, Kim sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for joint efforts against the U.S., and Xi responded that he looked to strengthen ties between the two countries.

South Korea's national security adviser, Suh Hoon, told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a March meeting that China and North Korea are preparing for a bilateral summit, the South's Dong-A Ilbo reported.

In the meantime, North Korea's leadership urges greater self-reliance from the public. Kim has visited construction sites for new housing three times since late March, according to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency, and encouraged people to prove the potential of North Korea's independent economy.

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