Rather than creating chaos in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the COVID-19 pandemic has been turned into an opportunity for the Kim dynasty to further tighten its grip on power, Leonid Petrov writes.
On 23 January 2020, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became the first country in the world to shut its borders in response to COVID-19. A week before the World Health Organization proclaimed the outbreak of the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, North Korea’s third-generation Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, apparently realised the danger a foreign virus could pose to the people and his power.
When the pandemic became official in March 2020, North Korea watchers began speculating on the possibility of it destabilising the DPRK. One commentator predicted that “quarantine will likely fail to stop the spread of coronavirus into North Korea”.
Another assumption was that a serious outbreak in North Korea coronavirus could be more effective than international sanctions in dismantling the diehard communist system and ending its dangerous nuclear program.
In fact, North Korea was well prepared for this, and it has faced other crises better than many may think. Professing its policy of national self-reliance – or Juche – since the 1950s, North Korea survived the prolonged period of Sino-Soviet ideological and military rift before the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance.
That North Korea even continues to exist after the collapse of the Communist Bloc can partly be attributed to its insistence on economic independence. Though this of course has come with harsh military rule maintained by the Kims. In fact, the regime has proved highly resilient, despite predictions of economic reform or regime collapse.
The DPRK survived the Arduous March – a euphemism for its great famine – of the 1990s largely caused by the collapse of its public distribution system, and sealed borders saved the DPRK from the SARS crisis in 2003 and Ebola outbreak in 2014 despite the nation’s dilapidated healthcare system.
Most likely, nationwide mobilisation measures and military-like discipline have protected North Koreans and their leaders from COVID-19. One year after the start of the pandemic, not a single case of COVID-19 has been reported by Pyongyang, but whether the official statistics can be believed or not, there is not yet evidence of the mass deaths – including an absence of mass graves visible in satellite images elsewhere in the world – or social disruption that many other countries observed in 2020.
This is not to say the government has cared for its people in the crisis. The Kim clan and military elites tightly control economic life and other freedoms in North Korea, and this empowers them to allocate limited resources in ways that they believe most effectively serve the regime.
While useful to the regime in some ways, COVID-19 disrupted many such economic planning projects, including the Five-Year Economic Plan.
In January 2021, North Korea’s own 8th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party recognised this plan as a ‘tremendous failure’, blaming the global pandemic, hostile American policies, and unprecedented natural disasters, as typhoons devastated the infrastructure of the Korean Peninsula’s northern provinces in 2020.
Despite admitting failures, Kim Jong-Un also noted in his report to the Congress a ‘miraculous victory’ and thanked Party workers for maintaining the stability of the country in the COVID-19 crisis. New hospitals were commenced nationwide along with new roads and power plants.
In 2020, due to the lack of imported goods and confiscation of foreign currency, the North Korean Won has become stronger by 25 per cent against the United States Dollar and Chinese Yuan.
The trickle of defectors to South Korea has dwindled tenfold, while cash, subversive information leaflets, and thumb drives with banned content could no longer be sent by South Korean activists with balloons across the Demilitarised Zone due to the pandemic.
This is what explains the DPRK’s resilience in the crisis. The regime’s control over its economy and population allowed it to enact some of the world’s strictest border closures in response to coronavirus. The government slowed its trading with its neighbours to a near halt and border guards were seemingly ordered to shoot to kill anyone crossing regardless of their intention.
Further, the state chased away seasonal migratory birds and even advised the locals not to touch snow brought by winds from China. The vacuum-tight border control and aggressive quarantine measures may be harmful for the economy, but preventing an outbreak was deemed vital for the military regime’s survival.
The truth is this regime has managed to survive too many man-made and natural disasters to be thrown off by a pandemic. In fact, year-long quarantine and total collapse of international trade has hardly brought anything new to the life of the 25 million people in North Korea.
Their sufferings are unlikely to be alleviated by the two million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, which will certainly be distributed by Kim only to trusted groups of Party and Army elites. If anything, the pandemic has created a favourable environment for the Kim dynasty to further tighten its grip on power through information control and mass mobilisation.
Post-pandemic, a war-like atmosphere mixed with distrust and xenophobia will continue to permeate the country’s daily life, and anyone who harboured some expectations for economic opening-up or regime liberalisation can now see that the violation of civil liberties has only intensified. Sadly, COVID-19 has brought North Korea back to ‘normal’, but for the worse, as the regime has used it to secure its own survival – probably for at least one more generation.
With The New Normal: In Focus section, Policy Forum is rebooting our coronavirus pandemic coverage to address the changing situation. We hope you find the discussion valuable, and invite you to join in the conversation.