For more than two years, North Korea insisted that it had not recorded a single case of Covid-19. Despite scepticism among Western experts that this was true, the country appeared to have avoided a large-scale outbreak by sealing its borders in January 2020 and severely limiting international trade. This brought its own dangers, with aid agencies warning in late 2021 that the population was on the brink of famine as poor harvests were compounded by the enforced isolation. Yet North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un praised the country’s “shining success” in keeping the “malignant epidemic” at bay.
Then, on 12 May, North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, announced that the first coronavirus case had been detected in the capital Pyongyang. The authorities declared a state of “maximum emergency” and a nationwide lockdown. But it was already too late. The following day KCNA reported the first death from the virus and warned that it was spreading “explosively” across the country, with at least 350,000 people showing symptoms. By 16 May the death toll had reached 50, with more than 1.2 million people showing signs of infection. Kim appeared on television wearing a mask and warned that North Korea was experiencing “great turmoil” as he mobilised the military to join what he called the “epidemic battle”.
North Korea is uniquely ill-prepared to withstand a major Covid outbreak. It is one of only two countries, alongside Eritrea, where the population is thought to be completely unvaccinated, and the previous policy of trying to keep the virus out at all costs has led to low levels of natural immunity. To make matters worse, North Koreans are chronically malnourished. At least 10 million people – more than 40 per cent of the population – were described as “food insecure” by the UN in 2020, which, combined with the country’s high rates of tuberculosis, could make them even more vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
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The decrepit healthcare system is also poorly equipped to handle surging infections. Many clinics and hospitals lack clean water, reliable electricity and basic medicines, let alone ventilators. According to the Global Health Security Index in 2021, North Korea was ranked 193rd of 195 countries in its ability to respond to a health emergency. So far, it appears to be struggling even to accurately diagnose the virus, with state media outlets referring to “fever” cases across the country, and testing capacity said to lag far behind demand.
Kim has lashed out at government and public health officials for the crisis, denouncing their “irresponsible work attitude” and failures in “organising and executing ability”. By contrast, he has been pictured chairing emergency meetings and visiting pharmacies to conduct spot checks as part of the regime’s attempt to show him taking charge of the outbreak and stress his selfless dedication to caring for his citizens. Of course, what they do not mention is how much responsibility he bears for this dire state of affairs.
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic is not Kim’s fault. But he is at least partly to blame for the conditions that have left his citizens so vulnerable to this outbreak, most notably his failure even to begin a vaccination programme. The World Health Organisation-led Covax programme allocated as many as eight million doses of Covid vaccines to North Korea in 2021, but the country has so far failed to arrange the delivery of a single batch. Pyongyang also turned down three million doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine last year. There have been reports that the regime is concerned about the possibility of side effects, but the more likely explanation is that Kim prefers to perpetuate the myth that the country does not need foreign help and is handling the pandemic in “our style”. He is presumably also wary of the monitoring requirements that would accompany an international vaccine programme, which could include handing over public health information and allowing foreign experts into the country.
None of this should come as a surprise. Kim has consistently placed the survival of his regime above all else, investing scarce resources into the nuclear and missile programmes he insists (and perhaps genuinely believes) are needed to protect North Korea from its foreign enemies.
There is also a grim precedent for the Kim dynasty’s response to a catastrophe that threatens the lives of its citizens. The current leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, was in power during the terrible famine of the 1990s, which killed at least 660,000 people (though some estimates range up to three million). Despite the immense suffering, the elder Kim put the needs of the military and the regime elite first, letting North Koreans starve rather than ceding political control. When he eventually allowed in international aid agencies, they were only permitted to travel to certain parts of the country, and under strict supervision.
Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from that previous catastrophe is that the true scale of the devastation only started to become evident to the outside world long after it had already taken hold. This time, South Korea and the global Covax programme have already offered help, and it is essential that the international community does everything in its power to encourage Pyongyang to accept. Now, as then, it is safe to assume that the situation is already much worse than the Kim regime is prepared to admit, and that every day counts as the virus ravages North Korea’s unvaccinated and extremely vulnerable population.
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato