Embassies close in North Korea as diplomats evacuated over coronavirus fears

Swedish ambassador to North Korea Joachim Bergstrom stands in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, after being allowed to leave a month-long quarantine imposed on foreign diplomats in Pyongyang on March 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - Several embassies in North Korea closed on Monday (March 9) as many diplomats were flown out following weeks of tight quarantine restrictions imposed by Pyongyang over the spread of the coronavirus.

North Korea has not confirmed a single infection but has imposed strict rules, including closing its borders and putting thousands of its own people into isolation.

It has also subjected hundreds of foreigners - including diplomats - to a virtual lockdown on their own premises.

Russian ambassador Alexander Matsegora described the conditions as "morally crushing".

Those restrictions were finally eased last week after more than a month, when more than 200 foreigners were allowed to leave their compounds.

Swedish ambassador Joachim Bergstrom tweeted a selfie from the city centre with the caption: "I have never been happier standing on Kim Il Sung Square."

Monday's evacuation comes after reports that a special flight was being arranged to fly diplomats and other foreigners from Pyongyang to the Russian city of Vladivostok.

"Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and French Office #NorthKorea which are closing temporarily," tweeted Mr Colin Crooks, the British ambassador to Pyongyang, adding that his embassy would remain open.

The Vladivostok airport website showed an Air Koryo flight JS271 arrived from Pyongyang at 10.49am local time (8.49am Singapore time).

It was not immediately clear how many diplomats were on board, but previous reports said around 60 people would be evacuated.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned last month of "serious consequences" if the virus reaches his country, which has banned tourists and suspended international trains and flights.

Pyongyang, subject to multiple international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, has weak medical infrastructure and analysts say prevention is its only option.

The number of coronavirus cases has risen worldwide to more than 100,000 across 100 nations and territories, with around 3,800 dead.

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