North Koreans are reported to be dying in large numbers from the spreading novel coronavirus, but their leader Kim Jong Un is making a show of his god-like invulnerability, photographed with no protective face mask while all those around him are wearing theirs. How else to see his gleeful smile as he watches missiles taking off?
“Kim Jong Un doesn’t need a mask, of course, since he is immortal,” says Evans Revere, who studied Korean issues for years as a U.S. diplomat.
As for the recent volleys of five short-range missiles, Revere sees them as “signaling to the United States and others that, even in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, North Korea is a force to be reckoned with and its military continues to strengthen its capabilities.”
The message, says Revere, is basic: “Don’t think we are weak and vulnerable” and don’t “assume that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is going to be weak and quiet” while President Donald Trump “has all but decided to ignore North Korea and focus on his re-election.”
Officially, there have been no infections and no deaths in North Korea. But if, as reports suggest, soldiers are dying in significant numbers, that adds urgency to the same message. Kim needs to stand as a strong, fearless leader commanding soldiers who are better fed and fitter than most North Koreans.
“Don’t forget, all pictures of Kim Jong Un are supervised by the Korean Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, and their primary focus is demonstrating the superiority of the ‘great leader,’” says Bob Collins, author of several books on North Korea’s ruling structure. “It shows the North Korean population that the great leader is so powerful that he does not need a mask. Showing him with a mask would seriously detract from his aura of invincibility.”
Collins, who made a career analyzing North Korea for the U.S. Forces Command in Seoul, has no doubt about the credibility of a report by the Seoul website Daily NK claiming nearly 200 North Korean soldiers have died from the COVID-19 disease brought on by the coronavirus. Citing a source inside North Korea’s military, Daily NK said that 180 soldiers had died in January and February and an additional 3,700 soldiers were now under quarantine.
That number of deaths from the disease “is a drop in the bucket for North Korea’s military establishment of more than one million men,” says Collins. “Far more than that starve to death or die from causes brought on by malnutrition. What it does indicate is an inability of the military to contain the virus within the ranks.”
The soldiers who are known to have died, said Daily NK, were mostly stationed along the North Korean border with China, which the North closed to traffic after the first reports of coronavirus in January. But there is no way North Korean border guards can stop movement across the Yalu River and Tumen Rivers that are the boundary.
“It does seem likelier than not that the novel coronavirus is now circulating within North Korea,” says David Straub, longtime U.S. diplomat in Seoul. “Despite North Korea having closed its borders early in the outbreak in China, the two countries share too long a border and have too many ties for North Korea to be able to completely seal itself off.”
Daily NK counts on contacts by mobile phones linked to Chinese networks near the northern border for what’s going on inside North Korea. Editor Robert Lauder acknowledges these sources “are not medically trained” and may actually be confusing coronavirus with other diseases, but believes the reporting “provides insight and contours into what we know already—North Korea has been hit with a COVID-19 outbreak,” and it goes far beyond the armed forces.
“They’ve been under lockdown to keep information from getting out. Their health system is not capable of handling anything,” says Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence analyst at the Pentagon and author of books on North Korea’s armed forces.
While conducting regular military exercises, North Korea soldiers exist on rations that are no doubt better than most average citizens but are far from adequate. “If you don’t eat a lot, it shows,” says Bechtol. “There are probably thousands of cases.”
Bruce Bennett, longtime analyst with the Rand Corporation, agrees. “With 200 dead, that would imply 10,000 cases,” he says. “And if that is true, it would explain why Kim Jong Un is seriously scared.”
Kim’s need to project a powerful image goes deep into the foundation of his rule. “This situation presents Kim with serious political problems,” Bennett explains. “If Kim were really a god, he would not have let this disease spread and death happen to his people.” Hence the iconic photos. “By being pictured without a mask, he is claiming to be a god—that the disease cannot hurt him.”
The timing of the missile shots coincides with the North’s annual winter training exercises, for which Kim needs “to depict an image of toughness, both personal and national,” says Bruce Klingner, one-time CIA analyst, now Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation. By not wearing a mask, he’s showing “despite the regime imposing draconian anti-virus measures, it still prioritizes military preparedness.”
At the same time, North Korea’s missile-and-nuclear program contributes to the weakness of a society that’s far from capable of coping with a disaster on the scale of the coronavirus.
“The Kim regime is facing the costs of its strategic mistake of diverting so many national resources toward missiles and nuclear weapons and away from public health and infrastructure,” says Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul. The regime “has prioritized social control and displays of military strength over the lives and livelihoods of the people,” he says, while Kim provides useless advice that costs nothing on how to prevent or get over the disease.
“North Korean officials are telling people in the country to use ‘salt water’ to disinfect their hands and surfaces in their homes and workplaces,” says Daily NK. And that’s just one of a number of “special disease-control measures,” mentioned by Kim during a meeting of the politburo of the ruling Workers Party.
As for Kim not wearing a mask, “I suspect his reason is the same as Donald Trump’s,” says David Straub, the retired diplomat. That’s “to show that he is not worried about the virus and that he himself is a tough guy.”