SEOUL—The spread of COVID-19 in North Korea is not all bad news for leader Kim Jong Un. By locking down the entire country, he can assert the power of his regime as never before. He has the authority to arrest anyone perceived to have broken the rules for any reason, whether in quest of food or the need to see a friend or to look for medicine.
He can also blame the scourge on a network of health officials. Their survival is now in jeopardy. Some of them, having been in contact with victims of the disease, may be ill, but all have to fear for their lives while Kim investigates how the disease broke out on a mass level. He’s calling for “correcting deviations revealed in the supply of medicines” when it’s well known North Korean medical facilities are largely bereft of medicine of any kind, much less any capable of curing COVID-19.
To show he means business, Kim fell back on a familiar wellspring of support—his 1.2-million-strong armed forces, over which he is the supreme commander. Pyongyang’s Korea Central News agency said he had issued an order for “immediately stabilizing the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City by involving the powerful forces of the military medical field of the People’s Army.”
Military people faced draconian punishment if they didn’t do something fast to stem a crisis over which they have no real control.
“If all leading officials do not exert themselves and display their strenuous and fighting spirit,” Kim was quoted as saying, “they cannot take the strategic initiative in the ongoing anti-epidemic war.” They “should not allow any slightest imperfection and vulnerable points by maintaining high tension and vigilance in the acute anti-epidemic war.”
The call for marshaling the armed forces behind the campaign showed the frustration in a struggle in which they have no expertise and no authority other than the ability to carry out a purge on Kim’s behalf. KCNA put out the dispatch in English as well as Korean, indicating the need to prove Kim’s fully in charge before an international audience.
“Kim is facing a lot of instability right now, being unable to feed his people, provide for their consumer needs, and deal with the COVID outbreak,” said Bruce Bennett, Korea watcher at the RAND Corporation.. “Kim tries to describe himself as a God-like figure—how could he let things like this happen? And so he must blame others… I expect that there are quite a few purges going on in North Korea to confirm the responsibility of others for the problems.”
Kim’s need to assert his absolute authority makes it impossible to believe the seemingly factual reports published by his propaganda machine, notably the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and KCNA, that purport to state the number of deaths, the numbers stricken and the numbers cured.
There is no way to verify these figures, but we may assume the real numbers are far higher than the 56 deaths and 1.5 million reported by the North Korean media to have suffered from “fever.”
NK News, a website in Seoul, said “fever” was “a likely euphemism for the virus that reflects a probable inability for North Korea to clinically diagnose all positive COVID-19 infections due to limited testing capacity.” Kim “is only admitting to a very small number of COVID cases,” Bennett observed. “The rest are just ‘fevers.’ This is North Korean perception management at work.”
It’s a simple blame game and Kim—who is known for ordering the executions of anyone he suspects of working against him or his interests—will not hesitate to imprison or kill those accused of failing to wipe out the disease. He’s not saying a word about vaccinations, which he has refused from potential foreign aid-givers throughout the pandemic, and he’s certainly not accepting assistance offered by South Korea’s newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol.
Never mind that the conservative Yoon is not tying medical aid to his demand for the North’s “complete denuclearization.” Kim also refused offers of vaccines, well before acknowledging the pandemic in his own country, from Yoon’s liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who beseeched him for dialogue and reconciliation.
“Kim cannot accept any blame because he is party of a ‘deity,’ the Kim family regime, that is infallible,” said David Maxwell, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “His deliberate policy decision-making has made the tragedy worse than it should be. He has prioritized the development of the nuclear and missile programs over the welfare of the Korean people living in the north.”
By passing on the blame, Kim avoids all responsibility for having failed to take any of the basic steps needed to halt the spread of the disease. He holds himself and his innermost circle above reproach while lower-ranking bureaucrats are guilty of betraying the country through their inability to prevent a disease that his regime had been claiming had not broken out anywhere within its borders.
That claim, of course, has never been credible. It’s always been impossible to imagine that Kim, by shutting down the border with China soon after the virus was reported in Wuhan in December 2019, had actually managed to keep it from getting into North Korea. He had been either in denial, refusing to believe what was happening all around him, or was carrying on a campaign of deliberate fabrication and disinformation.
Nor is it possible to believe the seemingly factual reports published by his propaganda machine, notably the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and KCNA, that purport to state the number of deaths from the disease, the numbers stricken and the numbers cured.
There is no way to verify these figures, but we may assume that they are far higher than the 1.2 million who had suffered from “fever” and the 50 deaths reported by the North Korean media. NK News, a website in Seoul, said “fever” was “a likely euphemism for the virus that reflects a probable inability for North Korea to clinically diagnose all positive COVID-19 infections due to limited testing capacity.”
What’s certain is that North Korea is in the midst of a serious emergency that provides a terrific opportunity for Kim to crack down more harshly than ever before on his own people. The emergency, however, confronts him with enormous risks. It is possible that he will be unable to stifle widespread dissatisfaction with his rule and may have to combat open opposition. He may wind up finding his grip weakened or compromised.
While “pointing out that the medicines provided by the state have not been supplied to inhabitants through pharmacies correctly in time,” said KCNA, Kim said “officials of the Cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognizing the present crisis but only talking about the spirit of devotedly serving the people.”
Stupidly, as if COVID might be cured by an aspirin or two, KCNA reported “the People’s Army urgently deployed its powerful forces to all pharmacies in Pyongyang City and began to supply medicines under the 24-hour service system.”
The North Korean media painted an image of medicines getting to those who needed it -- all at Kim’s behest. One KCNA dispatch went completely over the top, saying officers “expressed their will to convey the precious medicines, elixir of life, associated with the great love of Kim Jong Un….”
The dispatch, waxing ever more euphoric, said the officers “ardently called for dynamically defusing the public health crisis created in Pyongyang and becoming honorable victors by working heart and soul so that the revolutionary surgeons in the great era of Kim Jong Un can review with pride how they devotedly implement the combat order of the Party in the war against the malignant virus.”
Kim even “censured the director of the Central Public Prosecutors Office for the idleness and negligence of his duty not feeling any responsibility and compunction and playing any role.”
Such talk is a palpable cover-up for the simple fact that pharmacy shelves are virtually bare, there is no simple cure for COVID-19 anywhere on earth, and the North’s hospitals have none of the facilities needed for extreme cases.
The reason for this propaganda blitz is that Kim himself is to blame for diverting enormous funds to a nuclear-and-missile program that showcases his own power while his health system is known to be inadequate.
Presumably a small elite within Pyongyang has access to all the medical assistance they need, but the vast majority of North Korea’s 26 million people are without access to care. The reports published by the North Korean media give an optimistic, thoroughly false image of Kim’s concern for his people.
Now Kim faces the risk, much as he hates the idea, of having to accept foreign assistance in the form of vaccines and medical equipment needed to combat the disease. While saying not a word about vaccines, he may be forced to accept them on a mass scale. If that happens, foreign donors would insist on knowing who was getting the vaccines, where and how they were being administered.
“He fears the outbreak and implemented measures to try to prevent or contain it for the last two years,” said Maxwell, a retired army colonel who served five tours in South Korea with the special forces. “He implemented more draconian population and resources control measures in the name of COVID to further oppress the Korean people.”
Under the circumstances, however, Kim might have no choice but to permit the entry of foreign experts who, after they go home, would be telling the world just how badly North Korea is suffering under his rule.
For now Kim is doing everything possible to prevent exposure of what’s going on and the full extent of the disease. While squandering enormous sums on nuclear warheads and the missiles to carry them to distant targets, Kim has ruthlessly deprived his people of what’s needed in terms of medicine, food and much else for survival.
“Kim is always profoundly worried about his grip on power because the real threat to him comes not from the United States, as he claims, but from his own people,” said David Straub, a retired senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul. “He has conducted purges of the leadership beneath him, murdered his uncle and half-brother and used COVID as an excuse to close the entire country off from the rest of world for more than two years. COVID only adds to the domestic threat against him.”
By controlling “the flow of information,” said Straub, Kim “can accept international vaccines or not, all the while blaming others, inside and outside North Korea, for everything that goes wrong in the country.”
Right now, he’s fighting for his own life as North Korea’s leader. He knows, if he is unable to curb the disease, he and his regime may not survive.