The Russian ambassador in Pyongyang has described life as difficult in North Korea because of a halt in foreign trade amid international sanctions and coronavirus-linked border closures, but said there was no famine in the isolated and impoverished country.
Alexander Matsegora’s comments, published by Russia’s TASS news agency on Wednesday, came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that his country was facing its “worst-ever situation”.
Kim also urged ruling party officials to wage another “Arduous March” of work and sacrifice, linking the current economic crises to a period in the 1990s of famine and disaster.
The Russian ambassador, one of the few foreign envoys in the country, said while it was unclear exactly what Kim meant, the current situation could not be compared to that period.
“Thank god, it is a long shot from the Arduous March, and I hope it would never come to that,” he said. “I remember well what happened here in late 1990s and I can compare.”
He added, “The most important thing is that there is no famine in the country today.”
Experts say Kim is facing perhaps the toughest moment as he approaches 10 years in rule, with government mismanagement, sanctions, floods and border lockdowns hobbling North Korea’s economy.
The United Nations meanwhile has warned of possible food shortages and other humanitarian disasters.
‘Decent local tea’
Matsegora, however, said while imported goods had effectively disappeared from store shelves, most domestic products were still available and prices had only increased moderately.
“There is no deficit felt in the main grocery products category,” he told TASS. “The prices grew, but moderately and not for all products.”
For instance, coffee, which “one hasn’t been able to buy here for awhile” has now been replaced with a “mug of very decent local tea”, he said.
It was unclear whether Matsegora’s comments applied to areas outside the relatively prosperous capital, Pyongyang.
The ambassador also said North Korea was building “large disinfection complexes” which would soon be completed, allowing some cross-border trade to resume soon.
“There is information that this work will finally be completed by the end of April, after which the flow of goods should be restored,” he said.
The move would allow North Korea to bring in international aid that has been stuck in warehouses on the Chinese side of the border. Pyongyang’s self-imposed border closures were aimed at preventing a coronavirus outbreak, but it has slowed trade that was already constrained by sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons to a trickle.
Matsegora said while cross-border freight traffic could resume “in the near future”, passenger travel would only be allowed when the pandemic was resolved at a global level.
North Korea has not reported a single case of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but South Korean and American officials doubt that claim.
The country is expected to receive nearly two million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine by the first half of this year under the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme, but the North Korean population had been told virtually nothing about the international vaccines, Matsegora said.
The Russian ambassador is one of the few foreign ambassadors to remain in Pyongyang after some other delegations pulled out, citing the difficulty of rotating new staff.
Russia’s diplomatic mission recently complained about acute shortages of essential goods such as medicine, problems getting healthcare and pandemic restrictions that it said were unprecedented in their severity.
Still, Matsegora said Russian diplomats were much better off than other foreigners as Russia had “a large autonomous complex” in Pyongyang with “everything necessary for work and life, including a school, exercise facilities, a kindergarten, and an infirmary”.
“Nobody else has something like this in Pyongyang. So, as opposed to other diplomatic missions, we managed to almost completely retain our staff,” he said.
The ambassador added that there were signs that authorities were easing some of the domestic anti-pandemic measures, with weddings allowed and talk that classes in schools would resume this month.