April 09, 2020

The Need for the Truth: COVID-19-Free North Korea

By Kim Myong
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu

Kim Myong is a former senior North Korean government official who has agreed to share with HRNK analysis of the North Korean response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Since the official admission of an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in its neighboring country, China, North Korea has closed its borders, suspended flights in and out of the country, and restricted the cross-border movement of people and goods to prevent the disease from entering and spreading within its territory. Public health measures, such as disinfection and quarantine, have also been adopted nationwide. On several occasions, North Korean government-controlled media reported on the number of people in some parts of the country, including foreign residents, who had been quarantined or placed under “medical observation.” There was also sporadic reporting on how many of them had been freed from isolation, while consistently denying that any cases of COVID-19 infection or death had ever occurred.

North Korea’s healthcare system is fragile and precarious. The people of North Korea have long been affected by chronic malnutrition, poor health, and weak immunity. North Korea’s intimacy with China is the result of both geographic proximity and dependence on China in trade and tourism. Consequently, it would be no exaggeration to state that North Korea is far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than any other country in the world. Thus, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that there have been some COVID-19 infections and deaths in North Korea. Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to assume that North Korea has been more affected than any other country in the world. Experts continue to try to determine the rationale behind the North Korean government’s adamant denial of reality. Only North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who holds the key to everything happening in the country, would be able to provide the right explanation. However, based on my knowledge of North Korean society and personal life experience, I would like to provide some insights on this topic.

First, North Korea appears to be very concerned about its relations with China, and is thus reluctant to publish the real COVID-19 data. At this time, the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogue are deadlocked. The economic sanctions imposed by the international community on North Korea continue to be tightened. Kim Jong-un very likely believes that he has no one to depend on but Xi Jinping and China.

On the one hand, China, the point of origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been criticized in the free world for failing, at the early stages of the virus outbreak, to act quickly and to share the basic public health information that might have helped thousands of Chinese people avoid contamination. China has also been suspected of systematically underreporting its coronavirus numbers. On the other hand, China has launched a disinformation campaign to dispute the Chinese origin of the virus. If North Korea transparently publicized its coronavirus figures, this could add a fact check potentially undermining China’s denial and disinformation campaign.  The two countries share an 880-mile-long border, and admission of a massive COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea would substantially reinforce evidence that the pandemic originated in China. Kim Jong-un might have decided to conceal the real data to avoid embarrassing Xi.

Second, the North Korean government seems reluctant to publish the figures of COVID-19 cases to prevent ideological agitation among the population and keep its people from having any mistrust in the regime. In the mid-1990s, when the country was hard hit by famine due to severe food shortages, around three million North Koreans starved to death. However, the government never released this information inside or outside the country. At that time, I lived in Pyongyang and suffered from food shortages like many other people. Via word of mouth and rumors, I learned that inhabitants of other provinces were starving, but I could never imagine that such a huge number of people had died. Pressed hard by the widespread famine, then North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il agreed to receive food assistance from the international community under the pretext of recurrent natural disasters – e.g. drought and flooding. Until then, he had even been reluctant to disclose to the outside world information on actual human and economic losses caused by real natural disasters, and had categorically rejected any proposal by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive international assistance.

Following Kim Jong-il’s admission that a humanitarian emergency was unfolding, a taskforce was immediately established in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive food and fertilizer as foreign aid, under humanitarian assistance programs of the United Nations and other international organizations. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il never informed the taskforce on the number of people who had died of hunger. At weekly meetings organized on Saturdays to brainwash the population, the regime called on people to consume as little food as possible to mitigate food shortages and to help farmers in a variety of ways.  The North Korean people were asked to provide physical support to farmers, by supplying labor to increase food production, and mental support, through hiding the truth about mass starvation. Kim Jong-il was probably afraid of the people who, once informed on the real facts, would no longer trust his version of socialism and begin resisting the Kim Family Regime, which had ruled the country for decades. Instead, his propaganda machine invented a so-called revolutionary anecdote that he was eating porridge and taking a nap to alleviate the pain of the food shortages, just like the overwhelming majority of the North Korean people. However, the anecdote had it that, instead of napping in his bedroom, Kim Jong-il would take a snooze in the car, on his way to delivering on-the-spot guidance. He used this anecdote as propaganda to brainwash the people, hide his super luxurious lifestyle, and project a glorified version of a magnanimous self. As an old Korean proverb puts it, Kim Jong-il was trying to “cover the sky with the palm of his hand,” engaging in a futile attempt to distort and hide the obvious, overwhelming, and harsh truth. The North Korean people were not deceived, and eventually understood that truth.

Kim Jong-un would never want to fall short of the high standards of deception established by his father. As we have seen in North Korea’s handling of COVID-19, just like his father, Kim Jong-un is keen on deceiving his own people. To Kim Jong-un, letting hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of North Koreans die of the disease like worthless slaves would not be an issue.  To him, watching so many people die would be less painful than a finger prick spilling one droplet of his own blood. So, instead of focusing on testing and treating people to save their lives, he is only concerned with containing the spread of the virus. Any statistical data on COVID-19 infection cases and deaths seems to be classified as “top secret” in North Korea, and strict censorship would be applied to the information related to the disease to prevent the truth from leaking at home and abroad.

On March 17, Kim Jong-un unexpectedly launched a project to build the “Pyongyang General Hospital” and appeared at the groundbreaking ceremony. Since then, North Korean media has been ramping up propaganda, praising his leadership and the superiority of the socialist health system. However, no one truly believes that propaganda anymore. All of this propaganda and glorification of the leader is paradoxically an indication that Kim Jong-un has something to hide, and that he is fearful of the wavering hearts and minds of the population. Just like his father, Kim Jong-il, who was reluctant to disclose statistics about the unfortunate North Korean population that had to starve due to lack of access to cheap and basic food in the 1990s, Kim Jong-un is using all the means at his disposal to hide the truth about the coronavirus spread in North Korea. He is also afraid of the shock waves that may reverberate through North Korean society if statistical data were released on the loss of precious life because of lack of proper testing and treatment. He fears the negative impact of such information on North Korean society and its potential to alienate the population from the regime.

Last, but not least, it appears that Kim Jong-un, by hiding the facts, wants to find an excuse for continuing military provocations, such as a series of missile tests performed in March. Before the coronavirus crisis broke out, Kim Jong-un was envisioning a number of steps that could be taken without crossing a redline and upsetting President Donald Trump, who seemingly was less interested in talking with him this year. While the world is fighting the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea's missile testing surely upsets us all.

The world would have different perceptions of a North Korea ravaged by coronavirus and a North Korea completely untouched by the pandemic. Of course, few will believe the absurd lies that there have been no coronavirus infections or fatalities in the country. Kim Jong-un seems to be mistakenly induced to think that his military actions would be less condemned or even excused if the truth is concealed. On the one hand, North Korea is likely to continue similar low-intensity and carefully controlled military provocations in the weeks and months to come. On the other hand, it will double down on diplomatic efforts at the UN to have sanctions against the country lifted, in particular by manipulating China and Russia.

In conclusion, it is very likely that the number of coronavirus cases and fatalities in North Korea exceeds imagination. The international community should put strong pressure on the North Korean government to share transparent information. The North Korean government should be pressed hard to request and accept much needed assistance without delay to save the lives of North Koreans already affected by malnutrition and weakened immunity, as they are most likely to die from COVID-19. If we fail in the pursuit of truth, the coronavirus pandemic will trigger a humanitarian crisis on par with the great famine of the 1990s.