Russian diplomats leave North Korea by hand-pushed railcar

MOSCOW — Eight Russian diplomats and their families became unlikely social media sensations Friday after crossing the border home from North Korea by hand-pushed railcar.

With borders closed and travel restricted due to Covid-19, the diplomats were forced to abandon any hopes of red-carpet treatment on their departure from Pyongyang and instead take an elaborate and unusual method of journey home.

After a 32-hour train ride and a two-hour bus journey to an area closer to the border, they pushed their trolley loaded with children and luggage across the final 0.6 mile stretch separating the two countries.

“The most important part of the route was a pedestrian crossing to the Russian side,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post.

“They needed to prepare the cart in advance, put it on rails, place the luggage, seat the children and then set off…They had to push the whole assembly by rail for more than a kilometer,” it added.

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The journey included crossing a rail bridge across the Tumen river, a body of water that serves as a natural border between North Korea and Russia, as well as China.

The Russian embassy’s third secretary, Vladislav Sorokin, was the “engine” of the handcar, according to the Ministry. The youngest passenger was his three-year-old daughter, Varya.

The video shows them being met on the Russian side by cheering Foreign Ministry personnel, who greeted them as they finished their journey across the hilly, barren landscape. From there they were taken to Vladivostok, the largest city in Russia’s far east which is nestled along its Pacific coast.

“We don’t leave our own,” the ministry statement concluded.

Already one of the most isolated countries in the world before the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has shut its doors even tighter in an effort to fight the virus.

Last year it severely restricted air and rail connections with neighboring China and Russia — the two nations that arguably have the most normalized border contacts with Pyongyang.

Russia’s mission in Pyongyang was one of the few remaining with some staffing presence. Most embassies were entirely shut down early last year, with staffs flown out on a North Korean charter.

North Korea has not reported internal Covid numbers and very little is known about the pandemic within the closed country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has rarely addressed the pandemic head on, but he delivered an unusual, tearful apology to the North Korean people last October for failing them during this crisis — perhaps indicating that the country has been hit much worse than it’s let on.

“Our people have placed trust, as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, in me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily,” he said at the time, according to the Korean Times.

“I am really sorry for that.”

Russia has historically maintained relations with North Korea, with which it shares a border. The two countries had normal trade relations before the pandemic, and North Korean laborers were not unheard of in Russia’s far east.

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