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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 18 New Delhi, April 18, 2020

Battling COVID-19: Truth and Untruth about North Korea

Saturday 18 April 2020, by Rajaram Panda


Even when the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world claiming over 1 lakh fatalities, claims made by the most isolated country in the world North Korea has claimed zero fatality. The global death toll of the virus, termed as COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation crossed one lakh on April 11, barely 103 days after the organisation first heard of “mystery pneumonia” in Wuhan. North Korea could be one of the dozen nations in the world not yet invaded by the deadly virus, but when the neighbouring China, South Korea and Japan are struggling to contain the spread of the virus, analysts and Korean watchers stretch their head to find out how North Korea remains insulated from the attack of the virus. It is hard for them to believe.

This disbelief stems from the fact that North Korea shares a nearly 900-mile border with China, through which tens of thousands of North Koreans escape or navigated as part of a robust smuggling trade and yet North Korea claims to have successfully blocked the mercurial virus that has not discriminated between rich or poor or recognises any identity or location from entering its territory. While the US, its foremost challenger has 560,433 cases of the coronavirus with 22,115 deaths, China, its main backer and most important trading partner, has more than 82,0160 confirmed cases with 3,341 fatalities. (figures as of 13 April 2020) In contrast, North Korea’s official count is zero.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has boasted telling his people that international organisations and public health experts are all praise of the government’s success to keep the virus at bay. With strict information control and lack of free media, foreign reporters have no means to verify other than to depend on official sources. But whispers in corridors suggest that either Kim is suppressing information or blind to the situation on the ground. The suspicion arises because North Korea lacks the capacity to conduct widespread diagnostic testing.

Early measures

North Korea is under severe economic sanctions for its nuclear and weapons programs. Its medical system is poorly equipped. A country of malnourished people without proper sanitation facilities, North Korea is always susceptible to an impending disaster but the regime is always in denial. For Kim, face saving takes precedence to the health of the citizens. It needs to be admitted however that North Korea was the first country in the world to take swift action and close the borders to foreign tourists in January as soon as news emerged of the virus outbreak in Wuhan. By taking further actions, it imposed strict, lengthy quarantines on foreign diplomats and cancelled virtually all international flights. It also put more than 10,000 of its citizens under isolation and imposed travel restrictions as measures against the virus. Such measures stemmed the spread of the virus from entering the country. Even if this is true, the manner the virus travels, it could be next to impossible for the authoritarian regime to ensure full proof system so that North Korea does not fall victim to the pandemic. There remains always a strong possibility that some people manage to cross through the border even if the authorities seal it.

Given the dismal medical system, the country is unlikely to cope with the spreads when that occurs. While medical supplies and equipment are antiquated, basic infrastructure like electricity and water is not guaranteed even at medical clinics. Being aware of such deficiencies, the Kim regime reached out to international organisations and non-profits organisations in mid-February requesting assistance such as diagnostic test kits, protective gears and equipment, including ventilators and oxygenators. Russia quickly responded by sending 1,500 coronavirus test kits. Medecins Sans Frontieres, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent and the WHO obtained humanitarian exemptions from the UN committee overseeing sanctions to send in coronavirus-related relief supplies. With the overseas help North Korea conducted about 1,000 tests. Compared to South Korea which conducted more than 420,000 tests, this is small.

Economic consequences

As the border was sealed, the economic repercussions are huge. Plenty of informal trade goes on with China and the lives of many North Koreans depend upon the unofficial market. Closure of the border hit hard this segment of people. If the KOVID-19 spreads, it will deliver a blow to the already struggling economy. Still some cross-border smuggling to and from China continues, helping the North Korean to avoid dramatic problems.

After Kim Jong-un consolidated his power, he had launched some economic reforms and reform-driven growth strategy. That pace slowed down in the last 2-3 years and no new reform measures were adopted. When economic stagnation loomed large, the outbreak of KOVID-19 poses another mighty hit. If Kim does not revive the market-driven economic growth strategy, his own position could come under threat. It is possible that economic reforms took a back seat as Kim was focusing on weapons development and missile testing programs, while seeking to reach out with the American President in order to get some sanctions relief. That effort ended with a whimper.

China with which North Korea has a lips-and-teeth relationship has never abandoned North Korea. It has its own strategic consideration (or should I say, compulsions) to keep the North as a buffer against the spread of American influence in the region and therefore keep it always afloat. Therefore it tolerated Kim’s belligerence in weapons development programs and from 2008 onwards quietly encouraged smuggling and other illegal and semi-legal economic exchanges with North Korea. Faced with the foreign threat, Kim suspended dramatic restructuring of the economy until the outbreak of COVID-19 posed another challenge.

Effect on regime stability

Kim Jong-un is no longer inexperienced as he was perceived when he took power from his father. After carrying out purges and strengthening the nuclear status by tests and a series of missile launches, he also achieved international status when he sat across the table with the American President Donald Trump on equal terms. Therefore he is no more a pushover. Having consolidated his firm hold on power, he has no threat to his regime from any quarter. Therefore, writes Andrei Lankov, even if the coronavirus epidemic gets out of control, that would not constitute a major threat to the regime stability.

Though only credulous would accept the official claim of the complete absence of the COVID-19 casualty, it would be difficult to dismiss totally that the regime was able to successfully prevent a dramatic surge of the disease within its borders. Being an authoritarian system, its order on matters of quarantine and control are complied either out of fear or willingness. This is a clear advantage that North Korea enjoys over democracies where people tend to violate restrictions. Yet, the fear of an impending spread of the virus and therefore disaster remains always real.

That said, if the coronavirus outbreak occurs in North Korea, it would be devastating for the country as the handful of hospitals have ventilators, which are normally reserved for the top elite, and are off-limits for the vast majority of the population, who, when afflicted, are only left to die. Lankov observes: “If your country is seriously poor, it doesn’t matter whether you live under a democracy, a mild authoritarian regime, or a hard authoritarian regime. At the end of the day, the low-income majority have little chance of getting access to ventilators. Such machinery is very rare in poor countries and will be available only to a select few who will, overwhelmingly, come from the local elite.”

Since the elderly peoples in their 60s and above age group are more prone to die of the virus, and if COVID-19 kills top personalities like Pak Pong Ju, the chief economic manager (in his late 70s) or Choe Ryong Hae, Kim’s closest lieutenant and adviser (70), Kim would have no difficulty in replacing them. But if for example Kim himself fall victim to the virus or dies in a traffic accident or in extreme scenario in a purge, his support group will disappear with little trace in no time. Even when senior officials were purged by Kim in the past on his way to consolidate power, their supporters also quickly disappeared. Kim’s disappearance also shall be a repeat of that scenario. However, should the present leaders above 60 and above die due to the COVID-19, Kim would have little difficulty in replacing them with another group loyal to him.

Though the COVID-19 has assumed a global dimension, Kim seems to have overreacted, which seems to be delivering another blow to its struggling economy. It is well known that North Koreans are malnourished and therefore extremely vulnerable to the negative impacts of the quarantine panic. If the epidemic lasts for few weeks, the impact will be huge on a large scale. Prices shall skyrocket and poorer people will suffer from acute hunger and many would die.

Relief extended

In the wake of the COVID-19 spread, humanitarian measures have come to North Korea’s rescue. US Treasury decided to cut some red tape for aid groups, who have now easier path to bring ambulances, laptops and other aid-related items to the country. The change related to the definition of banned luxury goods under US law came after many experts expressed alarm about the likelihood that the virus has already spread to North Korea, despite Pyongyang’s claims of zero infections.

What does Treasury Department’s rule mean? It used to issue its own stamp of approval on an item approved by the UN Security Council for export into North Korea that the US defines as a “luxury good”. Under the new rule of the Treasury, it no longer needs to issue such stamp. It also means an aid group will no longer have to spend its time and resources seeking the Treasury Department’s approval, once the group has received a coveted sanctions exemption from the UNSC. US sanctions programs allow humanitarian aid including medicine, medical devices, equipment, and agricultural products at any time.

Yet, the process is not smooth. Though rules have changed, humanitarian organizations trying to work in North Korea still have to navigate a web of laws, regulations, UN resolutions, and often tense geopolitics before they can enter the country. Paperwork, waiting periods, and legal fees can be time-consuming and expensive. Aid groups need special licenses from the US government to send goods into the North, and permission if they need to work with a North Korean partner inside the country.

Even China that has close ties with North Korea faces problems at time in delivering humanitarian goods. The problem was accentuated after North Korea closed the border when the COVID-19 outbreak was spreading in China. Many humanitarian supplies were stuck in Chinese customs for weeks because of border closure. North Korea’s own government has put up barriers to aid groups as well.

Politburo meeting

Presided by Kim Jong-un, the Politburo met on April 11 to discuss anti-coronavirus measures, budget issues and organisational matters. At the meeting, the political bureau of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea adopted a resolution to take “more through state measures” to protect people’s lives and safety against the pandemic. North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, but many outside observers suspect North Korea’ claims. North Korea continues testing for the virus, with more than 500 people in quarantine. The state controlled Korean Central News Agency claimed that the virus had created obstacles to work on the economy, but the North had enforced consistent and compulsory “strict top-class emergency anti-epidemic measures” to maintain a stable situation.

The agency further noted that the Politburo also aimed to step up emergency services nationwide against the outbreak and push ahead with economic construction, increasing the national defence capability and stabilising people’s livelihoods this year.
In the final analysis, the question that North Korea’s claim of being coronavirus free remains disputed. US experts opine that Pyongyang had moved to warn off foreign foes and appear strong to its population. North Korea claims that when the epidemic flared up in January, it took extensive measures to prevent the spread of the virus within its borders, including the quarantine of entire counties near the Chinese border, the cancellation of important cultural events, and the establishment of a quarantine centre in a large Pyongyang hotel.

Experts have expressed their doubts of North Korea’s claims that the country is coronavirus-free so far. They say that it is very likely that it crossed into North Korea from China in the early days of the epidemic as the border is quite porous. Others say that the preventive measures seem to be reactionary, and focused on keeping Kim Jong-un and his inner circle safe from COVID-19. Still others say that the claim of virus-free could have a strategic purpose. According to Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, North Korea wants to project an image of strength in the face of the spreading virus. It could be Kim’s strategy to allay concerns of foreigners while warning foreign opponents not to take advantage of the situation, says Klinger. Jung Pak of the Brookings Institute also found North Korea’s claim improbable.

In conclusion it can be said that because North Korea has created the reputation of not being a responsible actor in world affairs and because of its exclusive nature, opinions normally do not go in North Korea’s favour. How North Korea changes this perception of the world about itself remains a challenge for it and until that is done, the world will continue to suspect North Korea’s claims of zero infection even if this is true.

Dr. Panda, former ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan, is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India. Views are personal. E-mail: rajaram.panda[at]

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