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Commentary: Why Kim Jong Un announced North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak to the world

After sticking to its COVID-free claim since the start of the pandemic, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un may be just desperate enough to have announced this explosive outbreak to the world, says Robert E Kelly.

Commentary: Why Kim Jong Un announced North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak to the world
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un is seen with military leaders at a high-profile military parade in Pyongyang. (Photo: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/File/STR)

SEOUL: COVID-19 has finally come to North Korea. Pyongyang now claims the “fever” is spreading rapidly, with as many as 1.72 million infected and 62 deaths as of Tuesday (May 17). North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared on television wearing a mask for the first time. 

While the world spent the last two years fighting waves of infection, North Korea stuck to its COVID-free claim. That is, until May 12 when it confirmed its first outbreak. Of course, international observers believe it is unlikely that North Korea only just experienced COVID-19. 

Perhaps in the earlier stages of the pandemic, North Korea was able to keep infection numbers manageable – but not with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Now, with 26 million people believed to be unvaccinated and after it turned down vaccine doses allocated under the COVAX programme in 2021, a medical crisis among the wider population would be a disaster in North Korea.

A central question arises: Why has North Korea decided to tell the world about this large outbreak? Likely because it is desperate.

LACKING IN HEALTHCARE CAPABILITIES

North Korea is best known for its nuclear missile program and aggressive rhetoric. It fired three ballistic missiles hours after announcing the first COVID-19 cases.

Less is known about North Korean healthcare. Non-governmental organisations and North Koreans who have defected to South Korea or the West often note the poor quality of healthcare in the small towns in which most North Koreans live. Modern medical equipment, intensive care facilities and medicine stocks are almost nonexistent for most people.

Dictatorships are often poorly administered. Large militaries drain resources. Opportunities for graft and corruption are widespread. Without the discipline of price signals and the need for corporate profitability, economics is often politicised and inefficient. And the people often suffer the most.

The North Korean government also has a long tradition of simply ignoring pain at the bottom. When famine struck in the late 1990s, Cold War assistance from the Soviet Union had dried up and Chinese assistance, which today keeps North Korea afloat, had not yet kicked in. For a few years, North Korea was on its own. 

The government chose to reject any external food aid with attached conditions (to ensure the army did not steal it) and ramped up military spending during this period, making the problem even worse. The result was a disaster – a mass, four-year-long starvation which killed somewhere between one and two million people. 

All this portends badly for Pyongyang’s ability and interest in responding to COVID-19. North Korea lacks the infrastructure to care for the infected and the testing capacity for proper diagnosis. South Korean media reported on May 17 that North Korea sent aircraft to China to pick up medical supplies.

WILL KIM JONG UN ACCEPT FOREIGN AID?

By announcing the COVID-19 outbreak to the world, North Korea has cracked the door open to receiving aid without having to be the one to ask. But its COVID-19 response will be politically rather than medically driven. 

Freshly minted South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to spare no effort to help – including vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel – but the regime will accept South Korean help only if it is proffered as a servile recognition of inter-Korean equality, not as “aid” to a failing state. 

China’s Sinovac vaccine, which has shown to offer lower protection, will likely be politically preferred because of the strategic relationship with Beijing. Lockdowns will be preferred to foreign help, even though we have seen how harsh they can be in China.

Kim Jong Un, his family and regime elites will, of course, likely have access to masks and efficacious vaccines they need. What healthcare there is, is in Pyongyang or will be flown in if necessary. The pandemic will sharply illustrate the harsh inequalities of North Korean governance, just as the famine did.

If there is any hope, it is that the sheer magnitude of the disaster will move the government to act. COVID-19 has spread so rapidly that in most countries, even well-heeled political and economic elites have been infected. 

Kim Jong Un ordered the army to get to work "on immediately stabilising the supply of medicines in Pyongyang". (Photo: KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/STR)

The North Korean famine could be politically structured; what food there was could be taken by Pyongyang elites. COVID-19 offers no such opportunities for control. 

It will spread in Pyongyang, a reasonably dense city. Some in the “court” around Kim will contract it. Kim may be forced into the kind of isolation for which Russian President Vladimir Putin has become famous.

HELPING NORTH KOREA CONTAIN THE OUTBREAK IS IN EVERYONE’S INTEREST

As always, there is little those on the outside can do, besides offer aid in hopes Kim will accept. Its political and economic isolation means little economic leverage and even less chance it can be shamed into better action by foreign criticism.

It is in our interest to help North Korea contain the outbreak. Burning through millions of unvaccinated North Koreans makes it more likely the virus will pick up potentially dangerous mutations, resulting in the emergence of variants that could be more deadly or evade the immunity that the world has acquired through vaccination and infection

The most obvious form of aid is more efficacious Western vaccines, such as the Moderna and  Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccines. But any offer must be carefully framed to allow Pyongyang to accept without being seen to undermine Kim’s authority.

It might also be wise to temporarily widen sanctions exemptions to make the importation of medical equipment and the operation of foreign NGO medical professionals easier. This is deeply controversial as sanctions have been the only leverage against North Korea’s spiralling nuclear missile program. Unilateral rollback will signal to North Korea to keep hanging tough until the West gives in. 

Everything depends on how big a threat an uncontrolled outbreak in North Korea is judged to be to the world. But to those who might think that its acknowledgement of the COVID-19 outbreak might be a sign of change, most depressingly, North Korea will not change at all. 

Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is a Professor of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea.

Source: CNA/geh

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