Kim Jong-Un during North Korea-Russia negotiations

Isolation in the Isolated State: Coronavirus in North Korea

North Korea has claimed that there have been zero coronavirus infections inside its borders; a claim it has touted since the very beginning of the crisis. Given its proximity to China both in geography and relations, the assertion that a highly infectious disease hasn’t reached North Korea’s borders is highly unlikely and despite its obfuscation of the issue, North Korea’s protective measures against the pandemic clearly show it is concerned about COVID-19. In this piece, Charlie Song examines how the pandemic is impacting the state, and how the outbreak may be behind Kim Jong Un’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and the subsequent rumours of his death.

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In the past few months Kim Jong Un has been seen chairing Supreme People’s Assembly meetings and missile tests without a mask, in close contact with other members, who, in some cases also did not wear personal protective equipment, seemingly in defiance of current health risks. However, suggestions of “business as usual” within the state, as evidenced by the missile tests by Korean People’s Army (KPA) in March 2020 have been undercut by the fact that the KPA had no flight activity for nearly a month. This prompted General Robert Abrams, Commander of US Forces Korea to declare that the KPA was effectively shutdown. Additionally, anecdotal reports of North Korean troops stationed on the border having contracted COVID-19 have circulated with some reports of fatalities.

North Korea is obviously unprepared for a large-scale pandemic. Sanctions have hollowed out an already weak public health system, and even with the rapid construction of a new hospital at the orders of Kim Jong Un, spending on public health amounts to less than 1USD per person. Even with the increased capacity a new hospital could provide, existing hospitals are ill-equipped and at best, have intermittent power due to North Korea’s erratic power grid. The North Korean populace have had increased rates of malnutrition due to repeatedly poor harvests and with a lack of access to healthcare have resorted to self-medicating with methamphetamines.  A pandemic of this scale coupled with a system teetering on the edge of collapse would be catastrophic. The DPRK is even more unprepared now compared to its closest preceding example: the 2003 SARS outbreak. When the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a global health alert regarding SARS, aid organisations were quickly granted access to provide technical assistance and support.

While difficult to ascertain the extent COVID-19 has had on the North Korean populace, if its official newspaper is any indication, coronavirus is a heavy concern for the North Korean leadership. Numerous articles show sanitation operations, articles on measures being taken to educate the populace on hygiene and social distancing measures, and even guidance on homeopathic cures. Photos of masked workers, some of which have been clearly photoshopped, have been circulated. While Kim Jong Un has been photographed defiantly without a mask and in breach of other social distancing measures, his actions contradict directives given to the state’s citizens.

North Korea was one of the first countries to impose entry bans to foreigners and Chinese residents living on the border were warned not to approach too close to the boundary line for risk of being shot by North Korean troops. China is North Korea’s patron, largest trading partner and closest neighbour, making such measures dramatic. While the residents on the Chinese side of the border were warned not to fish or walk along the Yalu River, North Korean residents still risked the crossing as they are heavily reliant on smuggling links with the northern neighbour to maintain local markets; a crucial lifeline to ordinary citizens with reports of those involved with smuggling having also become infected.

Even the heavily fortified DMZ that separates North and South Korea may not even be a safeguard. Wild boars from the North were considered a carrier of swine flu that infected South Korean pig farms and at one point, the South Korean military was authorised to shoot any boar ranging in from the North on sight.

Whatever fig leaves North Korea puts out about the number of coronavirus cases; viral outbreaks are a clear cause for alarm with the DPRK’s leadership.  Sandwiched between two major epicentres of COVID-19, and the source of coronavirus being its major benefactor, it makes North Korea’s claims of having no cases seemingly ‘impossible’ as General Robert Abrams, Commander of US Forces Korea commented. Based on intelligence sources, cases exist, but hard numbers are difficult to ascertain. Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s newspaper has declared coronavirus a matter of national survival and ‘coronavirus’ or ‘epidemic’ has been mentioned in articles for 56 out of 84 days since the initial travel ban with China was instituted. One defector noted that the mere fact that coronavirus has been featured so prominently in the media indicates the gravity of the situation. The alarm does not just seem to fall with the general populace but with the ruling elites and decision makers as well. Schools have either extended their vacation or cancelled classes entirely, and it is illegal to ride public transportation without a mask. Meanwhile, much of the North Korean media has focused on the sterilisation efforts at ports and railyards;  a statement that speaks volumes in a nation where information is strictly controlled.

North Korea’s COVID-19 situation is something of a Potemkin Village. Even with the numerous mentions of it in state media organs, the subject of domestic infection is carefully omitted and ‘epidemic measures’ or similar euphemisms are used to suggest a preventative nature of any precautions. COVID-19 infection numbers or deaths are only mentioned when referring to new cases in South Korea or with American soldiers stationed on the peninsula, but never on North Korean soil.

The recent absence of Kim Jong Un and the rumours of his death may also be linked to coronavirus concerns. His recent absence on a prominent North Korean holiday, a sudden drop in weapons testing – typically an occasion to appear for photo ops and to ‘provide guidance’ – have fuelled speculation he is either dead or in a critical condition. It must be noted, however, that absence of the Marshal (as he is known to the public of the DPRK) from the public eye is an event that regularly provokes outsized rumours.

Besides the greatly exaggerated reports of his grandfather’s, and father’s demises, the youngest Kim has also been the subject of death rumours when he has disappeared from the public eye in years previous. Kim Jong Un was also absent from the public eye for 22 days in late January/early February of this year, shortly after North Korea initiated a lockdown due to coronavirus; a connection that may be linked to the fact that obesity and high blood pressure have been common comorbidities with COVID-19. Kim Jong Un not only has a family history of heart disease but is known to be a heavy smoker and is reported to be nearly 300 pounds, and was short of breath during his DMZ meeting with President Trump in 2019; with chronic lung conditions also thought to increase the risks with COVID-19. His recent absence at holidays and meetings may be yet another indicator that coronavirus is far more of a threat to North Korea than it presents itself to be, and that The Marshal himself may be under strict isolation as a protective measure.

That said, as we have discussed previously, it is extremely difficult to collect accurate intelligence within North Korea, and absences from the limelight often provoke a flurry of death or execution rumours.

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Charlie Song is a former United States Army Infantry NCO and Officer turned private sector geopolitical expert. He has a Masters in International Relations, and his areas of focus include North Korea, covert activity, U.S. and global security affairs. Charlie is currently employed at a major multinational corporation providing geopolitical expertise on the Asia-Pacific region.

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Photo: Kim Jong-Un at DPRK-Russia negotiations in 2019, Kremlin press office photo