On May 12, the Korean Central News Agency — the main media arm of the North Korean government — announced for the first time that covid had broken out inside the country. For more than two years, North Korea had closed its already-tight borders in an effort to ward off the virus. But North Korea also blocked vaccines and other covid-related aid from entering the country, and now it appears omicron has hit in explosive fashion — within two weeks the country has reported 1.7 million cases of what it describes as “fever.”
In the week since its announcement, North Korea has put in place a lockdown policy similar to China’s; but for a country in which food scarcity and poverty are long-standing problems, experts worry that the outbreak might bring devastating consequences.
Grid spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, to understand how the covid situation in North Korea has escalated so quickly, how the famously reclusive nation is responding and the implications for its citizens and the regime.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Why was the announcement of the covid outbreak in North Korea so significant?
Sung-Yoon Lee: The public acknowledgment by the North Korean government, none other than by Kim Jong Un himself, of covid spreading in North Korea and also notably in the capital city Pyongyang, was a dramatic departure from the previous North Korean policy of claiming with a straight face that there has been not a single case of covid since the onset in early 2020.
G: Do you think it’s likely that North Korea did have some infections before last week?
SYL: In February , as the world was learning more every day about covid and you know, in a state of moderate paranoia, there were reports of North Koreans having pneumonia-like symptoms and high fever, all being dragooned into wooden huts and then locked in to fend for themselves and to die inside these facilities basically. So from the beginning, North Korea showed paranoia and did its best to prevent the virus from reaching the capital city. There were cases, they were just not confirmed because North Korea didn’t have the tools to test them. It would appear these draconian measures were effective in further prevention of the spread of the virus throughout 2020 and 2021, until this year. So you know, North Korea’s claim that until April they did not have a single case is almost certainly false. But, in the main, North Korea has contained the spread quite effectively.
G: How bad is the current outbreak and how reliable is the information coming out about it?
SYL: North Korea is basically an information black hole by design. North Korea not only blocks information but also falsifies information and uses disinformation, projecting for the outside world’s consumption false facts and false figures. So with that in mind, North Korea, it seems every day, is issuing the latest number of people observed to have had a fever — that’s the terminology they use, somebody with fever, not somebody who has been confirmed, because they don’t have the testing tools to carry out more credible covid tests.
What we find, according to the North Korean government, is a slight downward trend in the number of people found to have a fever over the past three days. But while that may be a welcome trend, it doesn’t really say much. And without doubt, the numbers are a gross understatement and they cannot, of course, include the entire population — these are figures from Pyongyang and some other major cities. So I think North Korea, the government itself, has no real good clue as to the extent of the infection, and of course, the outside world has even less of a picture.
G: Why is the government releasing any information at all given its usual secrecy?
SYL: Well, it gives the impression to both the people and to the outside world that the government, as shorthanded as it is, is doing its best to try to contain the virus. And that makes Kim Jong Un look good as people have to make further sacrifices being isolated and not having access to basic food and medicine.
G: What has life been like in North Korea during the pandemic up until this outbreak?
SYL: In January 2020, North Korea literally sealed off the border. Scholars on both sides of the political spectrum agree that North Korea is the worst totalitarian state in history. So it came as no surprise that North Korea restricted its population to such a degree, even cutting off all trade with China for almost two years, beginning in early 2020. It came as no surprise, but that of course foreshadowed extreme deprivation, suffering, lack of basic amenities: cooking oil, rice, basic food — even in the capital city, as told by the international community, the diplomats and foreign residents in Pyongyang.
G: How do you think this outbreak will further impact North Koreans?
SYL: Unfortunately, I see this as the beginning of untold suffering, extreme discrimination, extreme lack of basic food and medicine, death, illnesses, starvation and famine-like conditions for the majority of the North Korean population outside Pyongyang, the capital and a handful of other major cities. And this is not a political liability for the great leader, so called, the suffering and hunger and the death of millions of people, presumably have no adverse effect on the government.
So the outside world, I think, should take a strong stand and keep pressing North Korea to receive food aid and medical aid. And if Kim Jong Un doesn’t — if he refuses, then it’s on him, there’s not much we can do to compel a sovereign nation armed with nuclear weapons to receive aid.
G: How has North Korea’s relationship with China played into its covid response?
SYL: There was another major statement by Kim Jong Un himself a few days ago in which, toward the very end in the official English version, Kim Jong Un reportedly said: “It is good to actively learn from the advanced and rich anti-pandemic successes and experience already gained by the Chinese party and people in the struggle against this malicious epidemic.”
He can do that with far greater restrictions than even Xi Jinping because Kim Jong Un is utterly unaccountable to public opinion. There hasn’t been a single protest, and there are no unions or dissidents in North Korea. So he can afford to even go beyond what China is doing.
G: But I’ve read that North Korea is allowing people to continue working and markets to remain open, which sounds like a slightly more relaxed version of China’s lockdowns.
SYL: Why’s that the case? Probably the people of Pyongyang need, you know, decent food, and other clothing and other amenities. So just to completely seal off the capital city and not allow for any kind of commercial activity or governmental activity would be shooting himself in the foot probably.
G: Why hasn’t North Korea accepted vaccines from China or other countries and organizations? Is that changing?
SYL: Well, as the world has learned over the past more than two years, public health policy is always about politics. North Korea and Eritrea in Africa are the only two countries where there’s been no vaccination program — by choice, for political reasons. So for Kim Jong Un, I think he really believed that sealing the border would work, and to some extent it has until recently.
Last week, I was in Washington for a congressional hearing, and I met up with some North Korean defectors with elite backgrounds, and they said that Kim Jong Un would be averse to Chinese vaccines because of this long, ingrained mistrust of all things Chinese, especially medicine and food.
Has he changed his mind now? Possibly. I think from what I’ve observed over the past week, Kim Jong Un is, in the common American vernacular, freaking out. He’s presiding over meetings every day, virtually. And he’s clearly concerned about himself and his family, first and foremost. So this is a real crisis for him. So I think he would be amenable to handing out Chinese vaccines to the people who surround him, his close officials and the elites, while probably asking for Pfizer or something else for himself. But it’s also possible that Kim Jong Un and his family and cronies may already be vaccinated.
G: What about other aid?
SYL: It seems that Kim is now banking on just getting aid from China, and perhaps he’ll reach out to Russia as well. We know that South Korea, the U.S., the U.N., and many other countries have offered aid and so far, North Korea has been unresponsive. [The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that North Korea received some medical aid from China.]
G: How might the outbreak impact the regime?
SYL: I firmly believe this is the most serious existential threat Kim Jong Un has ever experienced in his entire life. During a famine, the wealthy, high and mighty, never go hungry. It’s always the politically marginalized, like inmates and also poor people, who become the first victims in a famine. Likewise, during a pandemic, such marginalized people are the first victims. While wealthy powerful people have better access to food and healthcare, a pandemic, unlike the famine, can kill both princes and paupers alike. It does not discriminate. So the fear of being infected for Kim Jong Un, who is not in optimal health, has pushed him to use these draconian measures.
It’s certainly more than plausible that the superspreader events were those in late April convened by Kim Jong Un himself [North Korea held a large military parade and other events last month]. So while Kim has never faced a real threat from his own people or from abroad, this pandemic is something that is taken very seriously. Now he’s showing serious distress and concern, which is understandable; from his vantage point, where he was an unassailable leader, during the covid times, you never know.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.