The wife of a North Korean consul stationed in Vladivostok, Russia, contracted COVID-19 and died this month, RFA has learned from sources in Russia, who said the North lacked the cash to vaccinate its diplomats in the Pacific coast city.
The woman, whose name was not disclosed, had been living in Vladivostok since 2018, when her husband became one of only five people working at the tiny consulate in the major Pacific Ocean port city near Russia’s borders with North Korea and China.
Though the Russian-made Sputnik coronavirus vaccine is available in the city, production cannot keep up with demand and doses command top ruble.
North Korea’s government would not cover the costs of vaccinating the consulate staff and their families, and there was no vaccination plan in place, sources in the city told RFA.
“A close North Korean acquaintance informed me that the wife of a North Korean consul here in Vladivostok died of coronavirus, so the North Korean mission officials here and all over Russia are on high alert,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service July 25.
“The news of her death came during a diplomatic office meeting. The consulate sent an emergency notice to the human resources company that manages dispatched workers, instructing them to raise their awareness that there was a coronavirus death in the family of the consulate,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Vladivostok is home to many North Korean government-owned firms that sell the labor of workers sent to the Russian Far East by Pyongyang to earn foreign cash for the regime, usually in the construction sector.
The companies, which forward the lion’s share of the workers’ earned wages to Pyongyang, have a close-knit relationship with the consulate.
The consul’s wife was hospitalized on July 15, after she had coronavirus symptoms including a high fever and coughing that started at the beginning of the month. The woman, who is in her early 40s, died while receiving treatment in the hospital, according to the source.
“The Russian coronavirus vaccine costs 7,000 rubles, which is about U.S. $95 per dose. People say that the North Korean diplomats and their families have not yet made a plan to vaccinate because it costs at least $190 to get both doses, and they suffer from economic difficulties,” the source said.
“Under the direction of North Korea, the consul’s wife was immediately cremated, and a quiet funeral was held.”
Another source, a resident of Vladivostok, confirmed the death to RFA on July 26, saying that all the North Koreans in the city are now living in fear after seeing that even such a high-profile person could not afford the vaccine.
“Although we have a Russian-made vaccine, production is insufficient, so it costs too much. So there are many non-vaccinated people in the Vladivostok area,” the second source said, adding that the consulate had convened several meetings related to the woman’s death.
“Due to shortages in the supply of the Russian coronavirus vaccine, most people living in Vladivostok have not yet been vaccinated… Vladivostok is also known as a region with high medical costs in Russia. If you are hospitalized for more than 10 days at a general hospital, it costs nearly $10,000 on average,” the second source said.
People who die in the hospital will have about $1,000 extra added to their bills for cremation, the source added.
“So it’s not only the North Korean dispatched workers in nearby areas, but also mission staff that cannot really go to the hospital, even if they are sick.”
Russia has recorded 6,195,232 coronavirus cases and 156,178 deaths as of Thursday.
According to CNN, in January 2018 an estimated 50,000 North Koreans were working in Russia – many in construction – in what the U.S. Department of State called “slave-like” labor.
Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2397 in Dec. 2017, all North Korean workers in Russia were supposed to have been repatriated by the end of 2019, and host countries were forbidden from issuing new working visas.
North Korea had been able to get around this by sending workers to Russia on student visas and having them apply for work permits. Pyongyang had hoped to continue doing this beyond 2019, but the pandemic in early 2020 shut down cross-border travel and put a snag in those plans.
A source familiar with the North Korean labor situation in Russia told RFA in February that there were 2,000 to 3,000 North Koreans in Russia working to earn foreign cash for Pyongyang in violation of sanctions.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.