North Korea, the original Hermit Kingdom, slowly reopens after COVID
The Washington Post September 5, 2023
SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a master of social distancing long before the COVID-19 pandemic, as head of a totalitarian state that has exerted tight control on its contacts with the outside world for seven decades. But even by Kim's standards, the last 3 1/2 years have been extraordinary.
North Korean authorities shut down international borders at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Almost all cross-border exchanges, including tourism, diplomatic visits, aid deliveries and trade were restricted to prevent the coronavirus from infiltrating the country's poor health-care system.
Now, the state is cracking open its doors.
North Korea's flagship airline Air Koryo restarted services late last month from Pyongyang to Beijing and the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Freight transport by rail and waterways had already been increasing months before the resumption of passenger travel.
Kim himself is expected to make a rare trip to Russia to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin later this month, his first known international trip since the pandemic closure, U.S. officials said Monday. Washington has accused Moscow of illegally seeking North Korean munitions for use in Ukraine.
Kim's pandemic dictatorship
The Kim regime exploited the coronavirus as an excuse to impose even more control on people's economic and social rights, experts and human rights advocates say. North Korea's civilian economy, led by underground entrepreneurs, took a hit from the border closures barring black-market trade with China. Kim imposed restrictions on ordinary citizens' movements, assembly and access to outside information, citing risks of exposure to COVID.
The prolonged isolation also deepened the country's chronic food insecurity, making people grow more dependent on Kim's authoritarian leadership for their livelihoods.
"The past three-and-a-half years of self-isolation provided an ideal environment for the North Korean leadership to exert greater central control over all realms, from one's way of life to the economy," said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at the Open Nuclear Network in Austria.
Aid workers, trade delegations and diplomats have been unable to enter the country, shuttering firsthand insights that could help inform those on the outside.
"Reopening borders will mean a greater likelihood of inflows and outflows of information, which will pose challenges to North Korea's ongoing policy of greater centralization," Lee said.
Why reopen the borders now?
During the lockdown, North Korea tried to make do with its ideology of self-reliance, such as boosting domestic manufacturing in limited areas, including textiles and agriculture. The regime has also ramped up its cybercrime activities to steal foreign currency in forms of cryptocurrency and other virtual assets, cyber analysts say.
But worsening economic conditions have pushed the Kim regime to seek external relief and partially reopen its borders to trade, according to experts.
"The cost of isolation that piled up over the years, however, has reached a breaking point for Kim," said Heo Jeong-pil, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
North Korea's economy shrank for three years in a row from 2020, according to estimates by South Korea's central bank. The North's essential trade with its ally China tumbled to a decades-long low of $320 million in 2021, down 90 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
Following a limited resumption of freight traffic last year, trade with China rebounded rapidly to $1.06 billion during just the first half of 2023. Since May, train services between North Korea and China have increased to twice daily, and some customs facilities reopened in June, according to a parliamentary briefing by South Korea's National Intelligence Service.
And trade with Russia is increasing as well, though at lower levels than with China. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the growing global isolation of Moscow has pushed the Kremlin closer to the Kim regime.
North Korea has "a capacity to promptly supply Russia with the sought-after munitions" following a full-fledged reopening of the land route between the two countries, said Cho Han-bum, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification.
Overseas North Koreans return
Pyongyang is set to repatriate thousands of North Korean nationals stranded in China and Russia during the pandemic lockdown. Air Koryo last month resumed trips to Beijing and Vladivostok to bring back North Korean citizens.
North Korea said last week that it has approved the return of its citizens abroad, citing an adjustment in the degree of its anti-epidemic stance amid "the eased worldwide pandemic situation." Returnees will be monitored at quarantine wards for one week, according to state media.
"Many hundreds, or thousands, of North Koreans have been stuck outside of their home country for more than three and a half years now and so these first chances are for them to return," said Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Beijing-based North Korea tour operator Koryo Tours.
Among the North Koreans facing imminent repatriation are students studying abroad, diplomats and laborers, as well as defectors detained in China. As a close ally of Pyongyang, Beijing regards North Korea defectors not as refugees but as illegal economic migrants.
Some experts believe North Korea may push to send more workers abroad to take the place of repatriated laborers. They provide an important source of foreign income for the regime, despite international sanctions banning overseas workers.
COVID-19 concerns remain
Despite the gradual reopening, the COVID-19 situation inside the country remains unclear.
Kim, North Korea's leader, made a highly disputed claim of "victory" over the coronavirus in August 2022, just three months after the country reported its first outbreak. Kim hinted at a COVID-19 vaccination drive later that year, but there is still no evidence of a mass immunization campaign in North Korea.
"Lacking vaccines, North Korea resorted to a severe lockdown to fight the virus, and the country managed to remain shut until the pandemic began to wane globally," said Ahn Kyung-su of the Seoul-based research center dprkhealth.org.
COVID-19 is still a risk to the country's ill-equipped medical system, but the need for reopening has grown to outweigh the risk, according to Ahn. The borders have been reopening in phases to allow time and resources for the North's health authorities to prepare accordingly, he said.
Will foreigners be allowed in?
Pyongyang has yet to make an announcement about when foreigners will be able to enter the country.
The Kim regime will gradually allow in accredited diplomats and aid workers, as well as tourists, said Heo, the professor. "While very careful at this point, North Korean authorities do need opportunities to raise foreign currency, and that is why they ultimately want tourists back."
North Korea's parliament last week passed a law for "expanding" international tourism, hinting the country is preparing to allow in more tourists. But it is unclear exactly when.
"Nobody knows when a border opening for foreign tourists will happen, but given that they do tend to move slowly and that the opening for North Koreans has only just started it would be expected to be sometime later," Cockerell, the tour company manager, said.