Germany, France, Switzerland close North Korea missions amid coronavirus concern

By Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany, France and Switzerland closed their missions in North Korea and withdrew their staff on Monday amid growing concern in the isolated country about the spread of the coronavirus, the Russian embassy in Pyongyang said.

North Korea has not confirmed any cases of the coronavirus but it has ordered foreigners from any country that has reported a case spend 30 days in quarantine. It has also reinforced border checks.

North Korea is sandwiched between China, where the virus emerged late last year and has infected more than 80,000 people, and South Korea, where the virus has spread readily over the past few weeks to infect nearly 7,500 people.

The Russian embassy said a plane belonging to North Korea’s Air Koryo airline carrying 80 foreign diplomats, businessmen and relief workers left Pyongyang for the southeastern Russian city of Vladivostok.

Among them were the “full composition” of officials from Germany, France and Switzerland, all of which temporarily suspended work in Pyongyang, the embassy said. Thirteen of its own employees and their family members, 35 relief workers and an unspecified number of businessmen also left.

The group includes “Polish, Romanian, Mongolian, Egyptian diplomats and their families who decided to wait out the quarantine in their homeland”, the embassy said on Facebook.

Britain’s ambassador to North Korea, Colin Crooks, said earlier in the day that his German and French colleagues were leaving, though he did not specify why.

“Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and French Office in North Korea which are closing temporarily,” Crooks said on Twitter.

“British Embassy remains open.”

Crooks shared photos showing white vans, apparently taking his French and German colleagues to the airport.

Germany has an embassy in North Korea. France does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea but runs an office there to foster exchanges.

Spokesmen for the French and German embassies in South Korea were not immediately available for comment.

Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea, Joachim Bergstrom, last week posted a picture on Twitter of himself in Pyongyang, and said he was happy to be out of the compound where he was quarantined for a month.

North Korea, slapped with U.N. Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear and missile programs, launched multiple short-range projectiles into the sea on Monday, a week after it resumed missile tests following a three-month break, South Korea’s military said.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)