Throngs of consumers around the world are hoarding masks and rolls of toilet paper as world leaders plead with their citizens to stay home. Already more than 160 countries have seen cases of the novel coronavirus that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
But amid a pandemic, North Korea has yet to report a single case.
Sharing an elongated border with China where the virus first broke out, and being in close proximity with South Korea, which was one of the world’s epicenters of COVID-19 just a month ago, the hermit kingdom remains obstinate, continuing to seal itself off from the world. Earlier this month, the regime allegedly quarantined roughly 3,700 soldiers, 180 of whom are said to have died, according to South Korea-based Daily NK news.
Kim Seung-chul, 60, who was born in North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province, which is northeast of Pyongyang, talked to The World about the coronavirus situation in the DPRK, or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He now lives in South Korea.
COVID-19's spread in North Korea
Kim Seung-chul worked as an engineer at a design center specializing in hydraulic power plants, and like many young North Korean men in the 1990s, vied for a chance to work in the then Soviet Union. He was successful and worked as a logger until 1993 when he realized how brutal conditions were and defected to South Korea.
Today, Kim Seung-chul serves as the president of North Korea Reform Radio, which broadcasts into North Korea from over the border using shortwave radio signals. He regularly communicates with defectors residing in Seoul, South Korea, who have direct contact with those inside of North Korea.
According to Kim Seung-chul, the coronavirus is predicted to have started spreading inside of North Korea sometime near the end of last year — a period that overlaps with a deadline imposed as part of a UN Security Council resolution demanding that China repatriate all North Korean laborers by Dec. 22.
“Some North Korean workers remained in China despite the sanctions while some were repatriated,” Kim Seung-chul said. “But it was during this period when North Korean laborers were moving back and forth between China and the DPRK that the coronavirus is said to have been contracted and started to spread inside of North Korea.”
It wasn’t until early January, however, that North Korean authorities allegedly began to discover people suspected of having contracted the virus. By the end of January, the world’s most isolated country plummeted deeper into isolation, enforcing stringent entry bans and even cutting off trade with China, which generates roughly 92% of North Korea’s trade, according to the Korea international Trade Association.
“Prices of goods at the market have shot up and so has the cost of gasoline and diesel,” Kim Seung-chul said, juxtaposing the gravity of the situation to the Arduous March, a devastating famine that struck in the late 90s and killed millions of North Koreans. “We can predict that by the end of March or early April, the North Korean economy will reach its breaking point. And if authorities fail to control the spread of the coronavirus while remaining on lockdown mode, it will lead to a national crisis and many lives will be at stake.”
'Hospitals lack the fundamental supplies'
The COVID-19 outbreak will prove extremely difficult to combat especially given North Korea’s crumbling health care situation, which Kim Seung-chul said is the most serious problem at hand for the regime.
“Simply put, without money, people cannot receive any kind of treatment,” Kim Seung-chul said. “But even if you had the money, you still may not be able to be treated because the hospitals lack the fundamental supplies to carry out any operations.”
As a result, many revert to the jangmadang or black market and buy their own medical appliances and antibiotics. Some will bring the appliances they purchase at the market to the doctor in hopes of at least receiving a consultation. However, during the coronavirus outbreak, those who are ill are not permitted to even visit medical facilities because the government is afraid they may further spread the virus. Kim Seung-chul said that people must first report their sickness and then wait to be granted entry to hospitals.
Themes of entry and access are long-standing traits of the regime that often draws a sharp line between life and death during pressing times. Though receiving aid will not likely be easy given the UN’s strict sanctions; if any resources are distributed, they will probably be divided up among only the most powerful elite circles that include military officers, the state security department and intellectuals.
Coping with an insufficient health care system
Everyday citizens, Kim Seung-chul said, find ways to circumvent these deeply ingrained systemic barriers. For instance, people working at garment factories are manufacturing masks instead of clothing to protect themselves against the virus. They use fabrics such as gauze, but in reality, these materials end up being flimsy and do not last long.
As everyday North Korean citizens find ways to cope with insufficient medical systems, sharp upticks in the price of food and other necessities as well as uneven access to COVID-19 resources, they may longer have the choice to defect, let alone move from one city to another of their own free will.
Even though the number of defectors entering South Korea has significantly shrunk from 2,803 in 2008 to less than half or 1,137 in 2018, there is still a steady inflow of women defectors in particular. Women comprise roughly 85% of North Korean escapees.
Ramping up missile testing during the pandemic
“Because cross-border tourism and trade has been completely blocked, it is essentially impossible for ordinary North Koreans to defect as a survival tactic,” Kim Seung-chul said, adding that only a small handful of elites who are able to obtain permission and pass the entry application are usually granted the freedom to move around.
There are more than 343,000 cases of the coronavirus worldwide. While it is not possible to gauge how many lives in North Korea are in jeopardy, Kim Seung-chul said North Korea’s ramping up of projectile missile testing during the pandemic may symbolize growing anxiety permeating the country. In other words, people are beginning to sense the regime’s instability and Kim Jong-un’s failure to contain the coronavirus.
More and more North Koreans are tuning into programs like North Korea Reform Radio and have covert access to foreign media and documentaries, Kim Seung-chul said.
“There is no doubt that people inside North Korea are cognizant that they are in a dire situation," he said. "Kim Jong-un is demonstrating both a power move and fear tactic in efforts to prove the validity of his leadership in the midst of a fiasco.”