Virus could be wreaking havoc on N. Korea

By OLIVIA SCHIEBER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: April 7, 2020

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In early March, North Korea triumphantly declared that it had absolutely no cases of the COVID-19 virus. Yet most analysts agree that available evidence suggests the opposite. If the regime’s previous behavior in crises is any indication, we should expect it to respond with deceit, aggression and militarism, including increased arms-testing. Sadly, many North Koreans will likely die in the process.

In the 1990s, North Korea endured a catastrophic famine that likely killed millions. The North Korean government faced a series of shocks, including flooding, crop failure and the sudden end of Soviet subsidies. Government incompetence, indifference and theft of precious aid supplies all contributed to the chaos. By the time the Pyongyang government exhorted its people to shorten their so-called Arduous March (i.e. starvation) by eating only two meals a day, there was hardly enough for one for many.

Enter the coronavirus. The extreme measures North Korea has taken to prevent spread of the virus seem almost out of character. News of the first outbreak in China prompted the Kim Jong Un regime to immediately close its borders. Pyongyang ostensibly threatened to shoot anyone who even came close to the frontier. In February, the regime canceled a military parade celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the People’s Army — what would normally be a highly publicized and well-attended event. Kim has even quarantined thousands of his own citizens and hundreds of foreigners.

Yet COVID-19 appears to have gained a foothold nonetheless. Nearly a dozen prisoners at Chongori Prison in North Hamgyong, known for housing North Koreans repatriated from China, reportedly died of respiratory issues, prompting authorities to disinfect the entire prison. Additionally, 180 soldiers have presumably died of the virus (and another 3,700 were quarantined).

Last month, Kim Jong Un ordered construction on a new hospital in Pyongyang to be completed in a mere 200 days. (He claimed this was to coincide with the 75th founding of the Workers’ Party.) And now North Korea has reportedly opened its borders with China slightly in an effort to bring in essentials, including medical-grade face masks and medicine.

Yet the regime still denies any cases of COVID-19. As it did during the 1990s famine, the North Korean government seeks to maintain an ironclad grip on the flow of information. Kim Jong Un has not been seen publicly wearing a mask, suggesting that “Dear Respected” wants to send a message of business as usual to the populace. And those deaths? The regime has attributed them to virtually every respiratory illness but COVID-19. (This is especially easy to do when you lack the capacity to test for the virus on a large scale.)

It’s also rumored that agents at North Korea’s Ministry of State Security Bureau 10 have arrested North Koreans who attempted to discuss the virus via cellphone. Last month, an anonymous social media commentator claimed that the regime had executed the first COVID-19 patient in the country. Though this account hasn’t been verified, the regime has been known to kill any citizen it regards as an existential threat, and a person carrying the virus capable of wreaking havoc on the country’s economic and health care systems would almost certainly fit the bill.

Clamping down on information for the sake of controlling the narrative comes at a price. North Korea’s attempts to conceal the 1990s famine meant that experts could not take early action because it was impossible to investigate or exchange information. It wasn’t until the famine had ravaged the country that Pyongyang asked for aid. We might see a similar situation with the coronavirus, which could rapidly overwhelm North Korea’s primitive health care system.

Even in the face of a massive crisis, however, Pyongyang is unlikely to beg for help. Accepting aid is an act of humiliation for the regime. In the ’90s, Kim Jong Il’s government thwarted well-intentioned assistance by concealing the extent of devastation caused by the famine from the outside world, even ridding the capital of its most destitute and starving citizens. And humanitarian assistance is likely to come with expectations that no Kim regime has ever been willing to meet.

Indeed, last month’s offer of assistance from President Donald Trump was met with a snub from Dear Respected’s sister Kim Yo Jong. Given the subtext of most of Washington’s overtures to Pyongyang, she might have assumed that coronavirus assistance would come with denuclearization strings attached, warning that North Korea would not be deceived by such “niceties.”

Aid programs designed to sustain the North Korean people and roll back the government’s aggressive militarism have never met their aims. During the famine, North Korea diverted food to its military in direct contravention of the terms on which the aid was received, and then test-fired a Taepodong-1 intermediate-range missile for emphasis.

Notwithstanding Trump’s hopes, we can’t count on COVID-19 to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. As if to underscore the point, the regime tested two ballistic missiles last week. While it’s possible that Kim Jong Un will avoid the worst of his father’s disastrous missteps of the ’90s, the world’s last Stalinist state cannot avoid them all. At what cost? We may never know.

Olivia Schieber is the senior program manager of the foreign and defense policy department at the American Enterprise Institute.

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