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COVID crisis in North Korea: What do we know?

July 2, 2021

Already reeling from international sanctions and severe food shortages, North Korea's malnourished people may now be facing the threat of coronavirus, with little in the way of health care support.

An audience member undergoes a health check as part of preventative measures against COVID, before a performance by the North Korea's National Acrobatic Troupe in Pyongyang
'From what we are hearing, it seems very likely that the virus is spreading through the population there,' said Ahn YinhayImage: KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has warned of a "great crisis" linked to the coronavirus pandemic in the isolated state, triggering speculation that the nation's rudimentary health system is struggling to control a significant outbreak of the disease.    

For the last 18 months, Pyongyang has consistently insisted that no cases of the virus were detected within its borders and that drastic preventive measures — including sealing the nation's borders — have proved effective in keeping the coronavirus at bay.

That has been virtually impossible to confirm, particularly since there are no longer any international aid or public health organizations in the country.

Experts say, however, it is extremely unlikely that the North has escaped completely unscathed; particularly given its geographical location bordering China, the original source of the outbreak, and its previous heavy reliance on China for both exports and imports. 

Kim set off renewed suggestions of a domestic health crisis when he chaired an extended meeting of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang on Tuesday, using the occasion to publicly criticize his senior officials for failing to implement measures required to combat the virus, state-run media reported.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a politburo meeting
Television footage of the politburo meeting indicates that many high-ranking officials were no longer present at the gatheringImage: KCNA/AP Photo/picture alliance

Officials' failures

"Senior officials in charge of important state affairs neglected the implementation of the important decisions of the party on taking organizational, institutional, material, scientific and technological measures […] associated with the worldwide health crisis," the Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying.

This "caused a crucial case of creating a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and the safety of the people, and entailed grave consequences," he said. 

There are no details on exactly what the "crucial case," "great crisis" or "grave consequences" are. But television footage of the politburo meeting indicates that a number of high-ranking officials were no longer present, and it is likely that they have been demoted or even punished with a term in prison or labor camp for their failings.

"Purges of people who are perceived to have 'failed' are a fact of life in North Korea, although it is not clear how harsh these penalties may be," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

He added, however, that it is unclear what more could have been done to better protect the nation's 25.7 million citizens, given the situation North Korea is presently in.

"It's no secret that they are really struggling at the moment," he said, pointing out that Kim's government has been under international sanctions for several years due to its continued development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.

"So, they were already facing shortages when the pandemic broke out in China, and North Korea responded by simply closing its borders," he said. "There has been pretty much nothing in and nothing out — and even the smuggling routes, which effectively acted as a lifeline for a large number of ordinary people, have been shut down."

"It's impossible to accurately gauge the impact, but it's clear the economy has been badly affected," he said.

Worsening food shortages

With far fewer foodstuffs being imported from China, North Korea's food shortages worsened after a bad harvest last year, with crops particularly affected by two major typhoons that struck the nation's most important farming region. 

Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, suggested that Kim's accusations of incompetence among the highest echelons of his ministers and a purge of their ranks indicate he is "scared" about the situation.

"From what we are hearing, it seems very likely that the virus is spreading through the population there, which has to be a worry as they simply do not have the medical capabilities to treat people," she told DW.

"Nobody believes that there were zero cases there previously, but this is quite an extreme development and suggests that they can no longer cope with the situation," she said.

"And when that is combined with the food shortages that ordinary people are already experiencing, it is clear why the top leadership would be scared," Ahn added.

A report released by the Seoul-based Korea Development Institute in late June indicated that the North is facing a shortfall of more than 1.3 million tons of grains needed this year to feed a population already suffering from undernutrition. 

Those estimates are supported by similar conclusions by aid agencies, including the World Food Program, and reports in dissident media quoting sources within North Korea as saying that entire families have already starved and that the armed forces are unable to function at full capacity as so many soldiers have been weakened by hunger. 

'Arduous march'

Perhaps the most significant indicator of the severity of the problem came from Kim himself when in May he called on the nation to brace itself for another "arduous march."

That proclamation will have struck fear among those who remember the four-year famine in the mid-1990s, when as many as 3.5 million people starved to death due to economic mismanagement, a series of droughts, the collapse of the centrally planned system of rationing and the withdrawal of support from the North's traditional allies, primarily Russia.

Ahn pointed out, however, that the North Korean regime managed to weather that storm without any signs of internal dissent that posed a threat to the leadership, and it is likely to do so again.

"Even when so many people died because of their leaders' failure to act, they remained in power," she said. "Their rule was more important than the lives of so many of their people, and that has not changed."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea