Three generations of totalitarian misrule have left North Korea woefully incapable of containing, or even suppressing, a coronavirus epidemic. The same intelligent (and malevolent) design that has turned the country into the world’s most exquisitely oppressive police state has also inadvertently converted it into a prospective infection deathtrap.
North Korea’s notorious gulag camps and prisons, as well as its military barracks, are petri-dishes-in-waiting for communicable disease. The government’s worst-in-class transparency practices ensure that it will automatically censor information (bad news in particular) that might help identify the coronavirus and limit its spread. Longstanding economic failure means that much of the population is poorly nourished and vulnerable to infection.
North Korea ranked 193rd out of 195 countries in Johns Hopkins University’s 2019 survey of global health security. Decades of ruthless control on foreign travel and contact with outsiders mean that many of its people may also be unusually “immunologically naïve” (yes: this is an actual epidemiological term of art).
But starvation is not contagious — whereas the new coronavirus is. It could easily spread from the bottom reaches of North Korean society to the very top. Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, might be youthful, just 36, but he is obese and a chain smoker.
Whatever the reason, Mr. Kim has made strikingly few public appearances in the past three months, aside from a brief showing to lay a commemorative wreath at his father’s mausoleum. He did not attend the Supreme People’s Assembly this month, a gathering usually capped by his grand orations. For the first time in his eight-plus years in power, he skipped celebrations on April 15 marking the birthday of his grandfather, the country’s founder.
North Korea’s security forces reportedly warned their counterparts in neighboring China that they were ready to use weapons to keep their shared border sealed. Smuggling — the North’s lifeblood in the era of international sanctions and, as such, long quietly tolerated — has been completely banned. An official reportedly has been executed for attempting to break quarantine.
Soldiers were even deployed in February to chase birds away from their breeding grounds — lest avian flu be imported as well. This, it is said, on Mr. Kim’s direct orders.
We outsiders have no real way of gauging whether the Covid-19 epidemic is a threat to the North Korean regime’s very survival, but the leadership seems to be reacting as if it thinks so.
The ruling party’s mouthpiece, Rodong Sinmun, stated in late January that, “All party organizations should consider the project to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus infection as an important political issue related to national survival.” It has demanded “absolute obedience” to state directives because “any moment of complacency could result in irreversible catastrophic consequences.”
Pyongyang boasts that not a single case of infection has been reported in North Korea. Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of the United States Forces in South Korea, said in early April that this was “impossible.” “We’re not going to reveal our sources and methods,” General Abrams was reported as stating to journalists, but “that is untrue.”
NK Daily published an article in early March citing a source in the North Korean military who said that some 180 soldiers stationed along the Chinese border had died of Covid-19-like symptoms in January and February; “there were just too many bodies” to cremate, the source claimed. NK Daily has also reported that in early April several doctors died after suffering from “fevers and respiratory pains” at a military hospital in Nampo, a port town near Pyongyang.
Another news story suggests that Covid-19 may have spread to detention centers: 11 inmates in the Chongori prison camp, in the northeast, were said last month to have died after “respiratory pains.” During public lectures in late March, North Korean officials stated that coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Pyongyang and two provinces, according to Radio Free Asia. (The government routinely resorts to such lectures to deliver to the people sensitive information and guidance it wants to keep out of official statements — and away from foreign intelligence services.)
It is possible that the North Korean authorities have been able to confine Covid-19 to a few military bases and prison camps. But even that would have come at a terrible cost: The national lockdown is a near-complete economic self-embargo — more stringent still than the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions.
Smuggling is largely on hold. Commercial shipments have been deferred. Illicit overseas revenues from North Korea’s partners in crime presumably have slumped (Iran has its own woes). The lockdown has disrupted informal markets, a nutritional lifeline for many people. Economic disaster is looming once again — possibly not that far in the future.
Stunningly, during one of his rare recent appearances — at a groundbreaking ceremony in mid-March for a new elite hospital in Pyongyang — Mr. Kim said he was “feeling miserably self-critical of the fact that there is no perfect and modern medical service establishment even in the capital city.”
During the Supreme People’s Assembly session that he skipped, a report from the cabinet was disclosed admitting unspecified “serious mistakes” in 2019; another report acknowledged “some drawbacks in executing the state budget.” In other words: Economic performance was already terrible before the coronavirus shutdown.
At the hospital groundbreaking ceremony, Mr. Kim said he hoped the massive project would be completed, as planned, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party in October, but that “the present conditions for this construction are not so favorable.”
The government might try to buy time by expropriating the “donju,” or “masters of money,” well-connected entrepreneurs operating in still-officially-illegal markets. It might also requisition goods or foodstuffs from petty traders. There were signs before the epidemic that Mr. Kim could be about to turn on his marketeers, overhaul the entire “songbun” caste system and launch an anti-corruption campaign. The current economic tailspin could add urgency to any confiscation agenda.
But if Mr. Kim decides to take their assets away from the “donju,” arguably the most powerful group after the government, he might find out just how influential they really are. Interfering with local markets risks destroying the population’s last backstop against famine: Perhaps Mr. Kim regards a food crisis as preferable to a pandemic breakout, but by inviting the first he could get the second in the bargain, too.
Mr. Kim might continue to test new weaponry designed for offensive combat in the Korean Peninsula: Epidemic or not, North Korea fired a series of short-range ballistic missiles in March. And if he still has the resources, he might push ahead with his plan to threaten the United States mainland with nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But if Mr. Kim and his entourage cannot manage North Korea’s coronavirus crisis, they might have even more trouble on their hands than they realize. A generation of nuclear brinkmanship has not yet provoked outside intervention, but stepping in to stop a pandemic is a scenario that China and South Korea just might consider.
Nicholas Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a founding director of the United States Committee on Human Rights in North Korea.
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