South Korea is one of the world’s success stories for tackling coronavirus and president Moon Jae-in's approval ratings have soared to a high of 71 per cent as a result. Yet North Korea has still claimed victory over its South Korean rival when it comes to dealing with this disease. According to the highly secretive regime-state, there is not a single Covid-19 case within its territory. But while Pyongyang is reluctant to come clean about the truth of how widespread coronavirus is, the country's state media hints at what is really unfolding.
There was much hullaballoo when Kim Jong-un ‘disappeared’ in mid-April. Speculation about what happened ranged from Kim being on his deathbed, to the suggestion that Kim’s existing health issues were causing problems. But according to the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the real reason was somewhat less dramatic: it seems that Kim, like many others around the world, was simply sheltering from the threat of coronavirus.
China’s decision to send a medical team to the DPRK in April may not have been to aid an ailing Kim then, but merely to assist North Korea's primitive healthcare system in coping with the coming crisis. Nevertheless, Kim’s longstanding health issues are likely to be a factor in his removal from the public eye. The Supreme Leader’s appearances in public have declined markedly as 2020 has progressed, especially in April. Given the tendency for coronavirus to cause more aggressive responses on those individuals with comorbidities, Kim’s sheltering would not have been illogical. It might also be happening again: Kim took another few weeks of hiatus away from the public eye from 1 May, only reappearing on 24 May, according to state media.
So while North Korea has been keen to brag about the supposed lack of impact coronavirus has had, behind the scenes, the country has nonetheless been taking the threat seriously. Since early January, Pyongyang has taken drastic measures in response to the pandemic. Its treasured border with China, a key source of revenue for the North Korean economy – with China accounting for 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade – was closed, and foreign residents were ordered to leave the country. Tourism, which provides another steady stream of revenue, was also suspended in January. The country quarantined individuals, including foreign diplomats, returning from abroad, to clamp down on any infiltration of coronavirus into the state. As of the beginning of April, just under 25,000 individuals in a population of nearly 26 million were placed under quarantine, or, as the North Korean state euphemistically termed, 'medical observation.'
As elsewhere in the world, North Korea’s measures to contain coronavirus have taken a heavy economic toll. The domestic production system has been put under increasing strain, not least in agriculture and crop growth. It's no coincidence that Kim Jong-un’s public reappearance in early May was at a phosphate fertiliser plant. Accompanied by masked officials, the unmasked Kim urged the state chemical industry to flourish; hardly an apolitical move, since phosphate is also used in uranium enrichment, the latter for nuclear development.
An outbreak of coronavirus in the DPRK would almost certainly overwhelm the state’s basic healthcare system. Yet North Korean state media is presenting a rosy picture of a coronavirus-free state benefitting from medical aid from South Korea and China. Covid-19 test kits from Russia and China have been sent to the North, apparently with no positive cases reported. The World Health Organisation, and other NGOs have sought exemptions from UN sanctions to bring medical supplies, equipment, and food into the DPRK, in February.
Yet are these measures really simply precautionary? Amidst speculation of Covid-related deaths amongst the North Korean military, particularly along the border with China, it would be easy for the North Korean regime to cover up such deaths, simply by attributing a cause different to coronavirus.
As relations between Pyongyang and Washington stall, Kim Jong-un has inched closer to China. Xi Jinping has pledged Beijing’s cooperation with Pyongyang in the fight against the invisible enemy. As Sino-North Korean cross-border trade slowly revives, Beijing will remain concerned with the potential for coronavirus to seep across the border, not least after Xi Jinping recently praised China’s successful fight against coronavirus. In everyday life, North Korean television showed masked commuters in Pyongyang, regular temperature checking, as well as online learning for students.
Just as we may never know the reason behind Kim Jong-un’s disappearance in April, we may only know whether coronavirus has actually taken hold in North Korea until we have been told by the regime itself. The question remains: is North Korea simply acting cautiously, or are its measures a result of some local cases of coronavirus? We should not rule out this possibility.