Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The novel coronavirus and North Korea
Shoji Nishioka / Journalist

April 14, 2020
As the novel coronavirus rages across the globe, China's neighbor North Korea continues to claim that it has “no cases of infection”. First of all, because its virus detection capability is lacking, North Korea struggles to grasp the state of the epidemic. Also, since their supreme leader Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers' Party in Korea, is spearheading the campaign to prevent infection, officials who fear reprisal may report “no confirmed cases” in spite of infections. The UN sanctions have stagnated the flow of people and goods to and from North Korea. The country's “voluntary isolation” to prevent infection, combined with the sanctions, results in a “double lock-down”.

Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, the First Vice Department Directer of WPK Central Committee, released a statement on March 22 revealing that U.S. President Trump had sent a letter to Chairman Kim saying he was willing to cooperate in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

When faced with hard-line actions by other countries against North Korea, it has adamantly responded with even severer reactions. Because of this history, North Korea has difficulty publicly seeking assistance from other countries. However, North Korea's positive acceptance of Mr. Trump's letter and its stance of not refusing aid offered by the US encourages “active offers of help from outside the country”.

In regards to the novel coronavirus, late last year, Chinese authorities reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) that “pneumonia of unknown cause was spreading in Wuhan”. The first fatalities were confirmed in China on January 12th of this year. Regarding the beginning of North Korea's response, North Korean officials said in an interview with the Choson Shinbo (an official newspaper for General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) that “people arriving via China have been monitored in isolation facilities since January 13th”.

Chinese authorities effectively locked-down Wuhan on the 23rd of the same month. However, on the 25th, the North Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the diplomatic corps in North Korea to an annual banquet, and Chairman Kim himself attended a Lunar New Year commemorative performance with more than 1200 spectators. Evidently, crisis awareness was not high in North Korea at that time.

However, the level of seriousness increased soon after. The Rodong Shinmun, which is the party newspaper, reported on the 29th that “preventing the spread of infection is a serious political issue affecting the survival of the nation”, and the government media extensively reported on the quarantine authorities’ efforts and the full-scale production of masks. At an important party meeting held later that month, Chairman Kim vented his frustration and ordered “the complete blockage of all routes and gaps.”

Even as of late March, North Korea has repeatedly emphasized that there have been “no confirmed cases”. A Japanese public security official who specializes in North Korea gives the following analysis. “Since North Korea lacks medicines, the only way to prevent contagion is to stop its entry into the country. They should have closed the border in December, but they put it off until January. This is obviously too late, and thus the detection of infected people would come as no surprise. Right now, protecting Pyongyang from the spread of infection is their imperative task.”

If the virus spreads, the impact on the citizens will be deadly. If this happens, there is a good possibility that it will spread to the military. North Korean solders live in poor conditions. Due to chronic food shortages, the virus could spread almost instantaneously after even one person was infected.

The North Korean economy is in a difficult state. The North Korea-US dialogue is stagnated, and the prospect of lifting the United Nations sanctions against North Korea is uncertain. Based on the assumption of prolonged sanctions, at the end of last year, Chairman Kim set a policy of “head-on breakthrough” consisting of a “frontal breakthrough to foil the enemies’ sanctions and blockade by dint of self-reliance”. However, to accomplish this, they need to increase their dependence on China.

Stopping the interchange with China means hindering the procurement of necessities such as oil and other important materials. The price of goods that depend on imports from China will increase. The means to secure foreign currency will be lost and foreign currency will be depleted. Many people making their living from border smuggling will also lose their livelihood. The extent of the double closure's impact on North Korea is unclear. Given the risk that they may intensify cyber attacks to gain foreign currency, it will be indispensable to collect intelligence and engage in surveillance.

Shoji Nishioka is former Beijing Bureau Chief of the Mainichi Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西岡 省二 / ジャーナリスト

2020年 4月 14日










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The novel coronavirus and North Korea