Matsegora Reads DPRK Again

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Russian Ambassador to the DPRK: we are accustomed to new living conditions in Pyongyang

Alexander Matsegora talks about how diplomats live in the DPRK under tough COVID restrictions

Alexander Matsegora

Alexander Matsegora. (Photo Credit RusEmbDPRK)

Moscow, February 5 ( -- Russian Ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora, on the eve of the Day of Diplomats (February 10 - kr), gave an interview to Interfax, in which he told how diplomats live in the DPRK, where, thanks to the most severe restrictions on the part of the authorities, not a single case of coronavirus has yet been recorded, assessed the likelihood of economic collapse amid the total closure of the country, and spoke about plans to restore direct contacts between Moscow and Pyongyang after the restrictions were lifted.

- Alexander Ivanovich, the first question I would like to ask is, of course, related to the coronavirus: do you feel free to live in Pyongyang now? Are residents affected by measures to prevent the penetration of coronavirus into the country? Given the measures taken by the DPRK authorities to prevent COVID-19 is there a reason for Russian diplomats to get vaccinated and wear masks?

- Frankly speaking, it is not easy for us in Pyongyang, although where and for whom is it easy now? However, the situation in the DPRK has its own characteristics. At the end of January last year, the country closed its borders. Moreover, if you get out of here, albeit not without problems, it is still real, then no one, even the citizens of the Republic, can enter the DPRK since then.

At the same time, the Korean authorities set up barriers to the import of goods. Until the end of August, according to special decisions of the leadership of the Extraordinary Anti-Epidemic Committee of the DPRK, positions of vital importance for the country still fell here, but after the September typhoons, imports completely stopped.

In general, the country lives in unique conditions. It is assumed here that COVID-19 is a special virus, its properties have not yet been fully understood. This is an insidious enemy who, if you relax your vigilance, sooner or later, in one way or another, will break into the country. The DPRK leader openly admitted that there is no full-fledged medical infrastructure that meets modern requirements and is able to cope with this scourge. That is why the total restrictive measures introduced at the beginning of last year not only did not abolish, but strengthened them even more, including by establishing additional cordons with armed guards along the land borders of the DPRK and its coast, so that no one would penetrate here and nothing would come from outside.

Such self-isolation has negatively affected both the economy and the living conditions of the population. Without imported materials, raw materials and components, many enterprises stopped, and people, accordingly, lost their jobs. Children practically do not go to school for a whole year and stay at home, which, of course, is not very good either for their studies or for their health.

The restrictions imposed fully affected foreigners living and working in the DPRK. The year 2020 was marked by a massive exodus of diplomats and personnel of international organizations. Most of the embassies either suspended their activities altogether, or left one or two employees "on the farm" here. Some of the diplomats of the Russian embassy and family members also returned to their homeland due to the end of their business trips or for medical reasons, and they were unable to send anyone to replace them. Naturally, no one had vacations.

Since January last year, we have been banned from traveling outside Pyongyang, we cannot visit parks, museums, swimming pools, or use public transport. Our children were instructed not to leave the embassy at all. Foreigners have been provided with a list of about 300 metropolitan retail outlets and one dedicated market that are ready to serve foreign guests. It would seem quite enough.

However, over the months of self-isolation, the assortment on the shelves shrank to a minimum. It is a difficult task to buy even such basic products as pasta, flour, vegetable oil, sugar, there is no suitable clothes and shoes. If you manage to get something, then it is three to four times more expensive than before the crisis. We, of course, do not starve, do not complain, and somehow we adapt. Since the children have grown a lot over the past year and a half after the last trip to their homeland, parents pass on clothes and shoes to each other "on the baton". But the lack of drugs and, taking into account the above-mentioned unsatisfactory level of medicine, the inability to urgently fly home in case of illness is a really big problem.

A lot of other requirements have also been established - from catering establishments where more than five people cannot gather, one must leave before 21:00, one cannot stay outside during dust storms, and when it snows, one must wear glasses and a headdress. And, of course, the constant wearing of a mask, hand disinfection and thermometry at every entrance.

We fully comply with the requirements placed on us, are accustomed to new living conditions, have learned to treat them with understanding. All the more so when the coronavirus has unfolded "in full breadth" in Russia and other countries, when loved ones began to get sick and even die at home. Thanks to the most severe bans and restrictions, the DPRK turned out to be the only country where this infection did not get. I have no doubt that if at least one "covid" incident happened in Pyongyang, we would have been shut in the embassy tightly - they don't stand on ceremony here with diplomats. Therefore, we fully trust the statements of the authorities about the absence of a "crown" in the country. At the same time, we are looking forward to when it will finally be possible to get vaccinated.

- At the Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, which was held in early January, the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong Un, was elected to the post of General Secretary of the Party, thus receiving the title that his father and grandfather bore. At the same time, many experts drew attention to the fact that, contrary to expectations, his sister Kim Yo Jong was not included in the new Politburo of the Central Committee of the WPK. Can such appointments, titles be somehow a signal for peace, or should it be viewed as an internal affair of the DPRK?

- Of course, all this is a purely internal affair of the DPRK. I would not consider the new titles and appointments that became known at the end of the Congress as a signal to the outside world. Kim Il Sung, by the way, was the general secretary of the Central Committee of the WPK. But Kim Jong Il really had the same position that his son now has - the General Secretary of the WPK.

I believe that, in fact, the new name of the highest party position does not change anything. Comrade Kim Jong Un, as was and is the undisputed leader of the Party and state. As for his sister Kim Yo Jong, she remained a member of the Central Committee and was appointed deputy head of a department of the Central Committee of the WPK. After the Congress, the sister of the DPRK leader made an official statement in which she criticized the south Korean military. So she's still very influential and trusted here.

- The topic of the DPRK and the situation on the Korean Peninsula in general is not so actively covered in the media now, even a little faded into the background. Can we say that the threat from the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become less and somehow subdued? Or are there any signs that, despite the information silence, Pyongyang is building up its nuclear potential?

- We can say that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is now much calmer compared to what it was in the period until the end of 2017. This happened due to the DPRK's moratorium on nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental missiles, as well as a slight decrease in military activity. However, the potential for conflict remains. The United States and south Korea, albeit on a smaller scale, continue to conduct joint exercises, the latest weapons are imported to the south, and the DPRK, in turn, said this directly at the Congress, did not stop improving its nuclear missile potential. This situation is fraught with a surge in tensions and is therefore a matter of serious concern.

- And again about the pandemic: some experts express fears that the path of complete isolation, chosen by the DPRK leadership in the fight against COVID-19, could lead to economic collapse. Does Moscow share this opinion?

- The DPRK has been living under tough international and unilateral sanctions for many years, and since 2017 they have become comprehensive. We can say that the Republic, even in addition to anti-epidemic measures, is enclosed in an impenetrable blockade ring. The country has largely adapted to an isolated existence. One of the three main slogans put forward by Kim Jong Un at the Congress is self-reliance.

Much is being done here to get rid of dependence on imported materials and equipment. In particular, equipment for coke-free smelting of pig iron is being installed at both metallurgical plants of the country (there is no coking coal in the country), and the construction of one-carbon chemical facilities is underway at an accelerated pace, which will make it possible to produce liquid fuel from the abundant brown coal available here.

Of course, the problems have worsened since the start of the pandemic, and in the near future, apparently, it will be even more difficult. But the Koreans, I am sure, on the whole will be able to ensure the functioning of their economy and prevent it from completely stopping. So, in my opinion, there can be no talk of the threat of collapse. Moreover, after a while the borders for commodity flows will be slightly open - now at border crossings, including on the border with Russia, large disinfection complexes are being built to ensure the safe delivery of imported goods.

- Do we plan to increase the volume of humanitarian aid to Pyongyang amid the pandemic? How much grain and oil products did you manage to deliver over the past year, and what volumes of supplies in this matter are in question in the future for 2021?

- In 2020, Russia supplied 50 thousand tons of wheat to the DPRK on a bilateral basis. In addition, the World Food Program provided $7 million. The supply of petroleum products, which is strictly linked to the quotas established by the relevant UN Security Council sanctions resolutions, amounted to only 16.9 thousand tons in 2020. It will be difficult to increase humanitarian aid to the DPRK this year, at least until the borders of this country are opened.

- Some time ago, information appeared in the media that the DPRK authorities applied for a vaccine against coronavirus, despite the official data of the DPRK, according to which there is no coronavirus in the country. Does the Russian side have a confirmation or denial of this information? Are there any negotiations on a vaccine between Pyongyang and Moscow?

- The DPRK has indeed applied for the COVAX program of the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunizations. This does not at all call into question the claims of the country's authorities that there is no coronavirus here. Moreover, such a step can be regarded as an argument in favor of the authorities' intention not to close the country tightly, but, at least, to enable its citizens to travel abroad. For example, we are ready to expand the admission of the DPRK students. When the guys come to us, they, naturally, should be vaccinated.

-Since the spring of last year, the whole world had to go online to continue communication. How are contacts between Moscow and Pyongyang maintained and at what level is this being achieved in connection with the pandemic? Are there high and high-level contacts now between the Russian Federation and the DPRK?

- Russian-Korean relations were no exception - they also went online. During the year there was not a single delegation - neither to us in Russia, nor here. All contacts go through the embassies. We communicate with colleagues from the DPRK Foreign Ministry and other departments by phone, by exchanging notes, and on the most urgent and important issues, we meet in compliance with all anti-epidemic precautions.

Contacts at the highest and high level were also carried out through correspondence - letters and messages are transmitted through diplomatic missions. However, we and our Korean friends are at a "low start". There is an agreement - as soon as the restrictions are lifted, we will start restoring temporarily frozen direct contacts at all levels and in all directions.

(Interfax - February 8, 2021)

* Translation by AI machine before minimal editing by KR

* Full text republished under fair use purpose

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