The spread of COVID-19 across the world is redefining the political and economic realities of every country on the planet. Every day sees scores of articles detailing how governments and populations are coping with the challenge. Yet when it comes to COVID-19 in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom remains as difficult to read as ever.
Frankly, we don’t know much about how the virus is affecting North Korea and its population. North Korea is notoriously opaque, and the reporting by its heavily curated official media outlets is frequently untruthful. Information on the actual situation in North Korea is scarce and unreliable. There are reports of increased food prices because of the shutdown of cross-border trade. Over 10,000 people were quarantined, though many have now been released. We know this because many of those were foreigners who reported on their experiences.
Other information consists of rumors that cannot be corroborated. There have been rumors of outbreaks of the illness among the military, but like other rumors emanating from North Korea, they are impossible to confirm.
We do know that the North Korean government took dramatic measures to counter the spread of the virus. Many of the steps taken rapidly in January parallel those taken when the country closed its borders during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Pyongyang considers controlling epidemics to be a matter of national security, and the regime announced that it was implementing a “national emergency anti-epidemic system” for the country.
Public health crises are a critical threat to North Korea because its weak healthcare system has suffered from decades of dire mismanagement. Longstanding international sanctions have exacerbated this already emaciated system. Healthcare is not applied consistently across the population, and the regime is likely to direct medical supplies that do arrive in the country towards its supporters among the elites. Up to 40 percent of North Korea’s population struggles with food insecurity under normal circumstances. This leads to undernourishment and increased vulnerability to disease. If a pandemic like COVID-19 were to break out among the population, the health care system would likely flounder completely.
The North Korean regime’s initial response was rapid and forceful. While it does not excel at providing food or medicine to its population, it does have unique control over the movement of people and goods. Powerful security apparatuses and ubiquitous social surveillance are pillars of North Korean authoritarianism, but they are also useful tools for enforcing quarantines and lockdowns. By late January, foreign residents were placed under tighter movement restrictions, and everyone arriving from China was placed into a month of quarantine. Ultimately, North Korea barred all foreign tourism into the country and effectively closed its borders, allowing only a limited flow of goods that could be decontaminated. Pyongyang even increased scrutiny and punishments for cross-border smuggling, which it typically tolerates as a useful social and economic pressure valve.
Yet we can learn additional lessons from other developments during this time.
Naturally, North Korea took the opportunity to plead for an end to sanctions, claiming they are impeding the response — while simultaneously claiming no cases in the country. The idea of loosening sanctions gained some traction in the UN and in the international community, led by China and Russia. This could be an indicator that international will for sanctions is slipping. At the very least, it is an indicator that Beijing and Moscow are tiring of Washington’s unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure campaign.
But North Korea’s border closures create a more absolute economic embargo than sanctions could have ever hoped to achieve. That North Korea took such a drastic step illustrates that it is able to manage considerably more economic stress than the “maximum pressure” policy has ever been able to impose.
North Korea’s recent military activity is also telling. According to the Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the North Korean military was “locked down” for February and early March. Not long after, Korean People’s Army personnel were shown without facemasks and standing in tight formations inconsistent with social distancing recommendations. And after an unusually quiet period, the military set a record for the number of missile launches in a single month in March. Is this a risky projection of overconfidence, or does it suggest that North Korea successfully quarantined relevant units to eliminate the virus?
A similar question must be posed about the country’s rubber-stamp legislative body, the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is scheduled to convene on April 10. North Korea has announced that the assembly will meet to conduct necessary business. Some rumors suggest that representatives began arriving at isolated sites several weeks ago, allowing them to quarantine until the meeting. If the virus has not been contained, this could be a great risk to the personal health and safety of North Korea’s elites. (Kim Jong Un himself is not expected to attend.) But if the assembly meets without incident, it may be another indicator of Pyongyang’s ability to manage this crisis. We shall soon see how North Korea chooses to portray this event.
What we have not seen during the COVID crisis may be equally telling. Even accepting the regime’s suppression of information, there is no evidence of mass social unrest. Nor is there evidence that the military or other national leaders are dissatisfied with Kim Jong Un’s leadership during this time. Whatever degree of suffering the people of North Korea may be experiencing during the pandemic, it seems that Kim Jong Un’s regime remains stable. That stability will likely shape Kim’s policy towards the United States for the remainder of 2020.