SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A U.N. spokesman said the world body in North Korea has been left with no international staff, who are now working remotely.
Despite claiming to be coronavirus free, North Korea has sealed off its borders as part of stringent anti-pandemic measures that also involved the departure of diplomats and foreign nationals.
Earlier this week, the last remaining two international U.N. staffers, both with the World Food Program, reportedly left Pyongyang.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday in New York that the U.N. office remains open and functioning, and continues to work remotely for the benefit of the people of North Korea along with local staff.
Dujarric said that after more than a year in North Korea, U.N. international staff had traveled home to visit their families and they are expected to return to Pyongyang as soon as the pandemic-related border closure is lifted for U.N. employees.
Dujarric said that WFP operations will be handled by local staff in Pyongyang and international staff working remotely.
Several U.N. agencies including WFP, WHO and UNICEF have offices in North Korea. But it’s not clear how soon their international employees can return.
Experts question North Korea’s claim of zero cases. North Korea, whose public health care system remains in shambles, would be at risk of a humanitarian crisis if there is a major outbreak.
An international health group established to promote global access to coronavirus vaccines said last month that North Korea could potentially receive 1.9 million doses of vaccines manufactured in India during the first half of the year. North Korea has about 26 million people.
“The U.N. is working with the government in support of a COVAX vaccination campaign and hopes it will provide an opportunity for staff to return and to scale up our support,” Dujarric said.
The pandemic border shutdown that has sharply shrunk North Korea’s external trade is a major blow to its fragile economy, along with U.N. sanctions and crops-killing natural disasters last year.
“The strict COVID prevention measures have impacted humanitarian operations in (North Korea), causing reduced operational capacity, stock out of essential humanitarian supplies, and delayed delivery of humanitarian program,” Dujarric said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.