Last foreign Red Cross workers leave North Korea amid coronavirus curbs

SEOUL (Reuters) - The last remaining foreign staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have left North Korea, the aid organisation said on Thursday, the latest in a mass exodus of foreigners amid strict coronavirus lockdowns.

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North Korea has reported zero confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but the government has imposed stifling measures that in some cases go beyond the controls already in place in the politically and economically isolated country.

International ICRC staff left Pyongyang on Wednesday and the organisation’s ongoing work there will be managed by its delegation in Beijing, Graziella Leite Piccoli, the ICRC’s deputy head of delegation for East Asia, said in a statement.

“They have completed their assignments in the DPRK,” she said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “They will be going to their home countries to reunite with their families.”

The ICRC office remained open with very limited activities given the current anti-coronavirus measures, Piccoli said.

The ICRC staff are among around 40 foreigners who left Pyongyang this week, including staff of several embassies and other aid organisations, according to a report by NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.

“The latest departure suggests that foreign humanitarian workers only have a skeletal presence in North Korea right now,” NK News CEO Chad O’Carroll wrote.

North Korea has suspended almost all international flights and cross-border train and road traffic, with residents near the border warned that guards would shoot anyone trying to cross.

In the capital, imported goods have often become scarce as trade dwindled under the self-imposed restrictions, foreign residents said.

Many ambassadors, diplomats and others have left the country this year after enduring weeks-long lockdowns and have been unable to return.

According to the World Health Organization, as of Nov. 25, North Korea had identified 8,594 people as suspected coronavirus cases, but no one has tested positive.

Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie