SEOUL: A UN spokesman said the world body in North Korea has been left with no international staff members, 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 UN staffers, both with the World Food Program (WFP), reportedly left Pyongyang.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday (Mar 19) in New York that the UN office remains open and functioning, and continues to work remotely for the benefit of the people of North Korea along with local staff members.
Dujarric said that after more than a year in North Korea, UN international staff members 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 UN employees.
Dujarric said that WFP operations will be handled by local staff members in Pyongyang and international staff members working remotely.
Several UN 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 COVID-19 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 UN 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 UN 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.