The isolated country reports hundreds of thousands of new corona cases every day. A humanitarian catastrophe is looming, and the regime could also come under pressure, says North Korea expert Rüdiger Frank.
Mr. Frank, North Korea is almost hermetically sealed. How did the coronavirus get into the country?
The corona pandemic has cut North Korea off from the rest of the world in ways that sanctions never did. Even with earlier epidemics, such as Ebola or Mers, the regime reacted in a very extreme way and sealed off the country. At the beginning of the year, however, trade with China across the land border in the north was very cautiously reactivated. So there was contact again between North Koreans and Chinese. Observers with good connections to the country assume that the virus came to North Korea this way.
There are reports that a large military parade at the end of April was a superspreader event.
This explanation is attractive to us in the West because it brings together all our stereotypes about North Korea: military, parades, irresponsibility. But I think that’s unlikely: mass events are constantly taking place in North Korea, especially in the spring. More importantly, North Korea is in the midst of its annual agricultural mobilization campaign. People are flocking from the cities to the countryside to help transplant the rice seedlings.
What did the North Korean population even know about Corona before the recent outbreak was made public?
The population was informed at an early stage about the existence of the pandemic and about the effects in other countries – that was the reason for the isolation. At the same time, it was always emphasized that the virus did not exist in North Korea. What is interesting about the current outbreak is that leader Kim Jong Un points out that many failures in the fight against the pandemic are due to the inexperience of officials. This contradicts the fact that the existence of the pandemic has been known for two years.
Connoisseur of the closed country
Ruediger Frank was born in Leipzig in 1969. He is Professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna. In the early 1990s, Frank spent a semester at Kim Il Sung University in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Since then he has traveled the country regularly. Frank is the author of two books and numerous research papers on North Korea.
North Korea speaks of people with “fever-like symptoms” – there are now said to be almost two million. How accurate is our picture of the Corona outbreak in North Korea?
It is very unusual for North Korea’s leadership to release concrete figures. Even when it comes to economic data, the terms “strong increases” or “high growth” are usually only opaque. Another question is how accurate the numbers are. There is no nationwide test system in North Korea, which is why the “fever-like symptoms” are taken as an approximation of the number of cases. This means that there is a very high number of unreported cases of sick people who do not go to a hospital.
Why are figures being published now?
One possible explanation is that the regime is dealing with an extraordinary emergency situation that is provoking an extraordinary reaction. But the addressee is also abroad: when the North Korean state publishes such figures on the Internet, it is intended to inform the rest of the world. I therefore assume that this is also preparatory work for possible applications to international aid organizations. The North Koreans now know that these organizations want concrete data and figures. So it’s probably a combination of a real emergency and a desire for international help.
So far, however, North Korea has rejected international aid, such as offers for vaccines. Why?
One reason was that the quality of the vaccines offered was poor from a North Korean point of view. Possible side effects, which were also widely discussed here, played a major role. North Korea might have accepted the vaccines if donors hadn’t insisted on disclosure and access to the country. That would have allowed an insight into North Korean society, which the state wanted to avoid.
The population is therefore unvaccinated, and many North Koreans are malnourished. What happens when Corona hits such a vulnerable population?
In addition to malnutrition, there is very rudimentary health care in which disease prevention plays almost no role. In addition, North Korea has been fighting another respiratory disease for many years: tuberculosis. You don’t have to be a doctor to figure out that these are bad conditions.
And how is the pandemic affecting the economy?
North Korea struggles to support itself even under normal circumstances. A catastrophe threatens if masses of people fall ill and are unable to work right now, while the rice harvest is being prepared for the autumn. When it comes to agriculture, the regime faces a choice between the plague and cholera: Either you send hundreds of thousands of townspeople to the countryside to help transplant the rice seedlings, and you risk spreading the virus further. Or you enforce a lockdown and thus almost inevitably accept a food crisis in winter.
In the 1990s there was a great famine in North Korea, which was an existential challenge for the regime. Is the situation today comparable?
The Corona outbreak is an even greater challenge than the hunger crisis of the time. In response to the crisis of the 1990s, elements of the market economy were introduced for the first time and a middle class emerged. Today, the population has a completely different access to information than the population did back then, and their expectations of those in government are higher. Today, the tolerance of the population towards an emergency situation is lower than it was more than 30 years ago.
Can Kim Jong Un stay in power?
I think it is very unlikely that other members of the ruling class would rebel against Kim Jong Un. There are no signs of this, nor are the necessary structures. But Kim is vulnerable in the sense that the entire North Korean system is vulnerable to such an existential crisis. The military and the security apparatus are essential pillars of the regime. If 30 or 40 percent fail there, the regime is of course threatened. Looking at the past, however, it is also conceivable that Kim might even consolidate his power by using the crisis to eliminate possible political opponents. I don’t think Kim is shaking because of the crisis.