On March 14th, North Korea’s state news agency praised countrywide efforts to raise COVID-19 awareness and urged continued public vigilance to keep the number of cases in the country at zero. Indeed, North Korea is notably absent from among the 127 countries currently listed on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 World Map website. Considering the virus originated in China and the first country outside of China to experience a spike was South Korea, North Korea’s claim of zero cases is highly dubious, and hiding a contagion is incredibly reckless. While the scope and scale of the virus in North Korea is only guessable at this point, the country’s response to the problem is tiresomely predictable.
This is not the first time the country has demonstrated stubborn adherence to opaqueness and misinformation. The 1990s bore witness to a disastrous famine in North Korea made worse due to delayed international relief caused by information suppression designed to preserve the power of the party system and the Kim regime. The welfare of the North Korean people has long been subordinate to the “big rocks” of the Kim regime—keeping the party elite happy and advancing the nuclear program. During the famine of the 1990s, as North Koreans in the outlying provinces starved, the government continued funneling resources into its nuclear program while supplying priority rations to the Korean Workers Party and redirecting international food aid to the military. Robert Collins’ seminal report, “Marked for Life,” describes in intricate detail the Songbun caste system through which these abuses were carried out.
A safe assumption is the current iteration of the Kim regime will resort to the same tactics previously deployed during the famine. Prioritized efforts to contain the spread of the virus and triage infected patients will favor party elites and the military. While this caste system approach has an obvious deleterious impact on those in the outlying areas, it could also wind up harming the regime. The approach threatens the viability of one of the few remaining sources of regime revenue—the markets that the regime regularly extorts through compulsory fees, kickbacks and bribes.
North Korea’s system of interconnected markets located throughout the country is fed through a logistical network that begins at points located along the border between China and North Korea. Disruption to this network would dry up streams of revenue that would otherwise flow into the regime’s coffers. Acutely aware of the regime’s dependence on the market system and the potential for disruption, Kim Jong Un is left with two payoff scenarios: (1) go back to the negotiating table with the U.S. and seek sanctions relief for some denuclearization or (2) seek attention by conducting a military provocation that exceeds even the Trump administration’s threshold of ignorability. COVID-19 creates complications for both scenarios.
Global attention is now entirely focused on containing the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. has adopted an “all of government approach” that will preempt any interest in near term diplomacy with North Korea. If not for COVID-19, the timing might be perfect for North Korea to conduct a provocation. There is past evidence of North Korea conducting strategically timed provocations to influence approaching South Korean National Assembly elections or to garner attention during stalled nuclear negotiations. With National Assembly elections scheduled for April 15 and nuclear negotiations with the U.S. going nowhere, both conditions are currently applicable. However, due to COVID-19, North Korea would risk tremendous scorn by the international community, and possibly more sanctions, at a time when it needs international support.
Although incompatible with the usual repertoire of maintaining opaqueness and distorting information to preserve the regime, the most optimal payoff for North Korea would be to meld with the international community and immediately begin transparent reporting of COVID-19. This would add North Korea to the global accounting of the pandemic, with the obvious benefit of being eligible for obtaining international support during a critical window of time while virus rates are rapidly increasing throughout the world. Resorting to the failed caste system tactics from the 1990s famine will not only bring great harm to the North Korean people, but could also, in a twisted sort of irony, cause insurmountable problems for the regime.
George Hutchinson is a PhD student in Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government and a Senior Regional Planner with SecuriFense, Inc. He has a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in Logistics Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He previously served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, specializing as a Northeast Asia Foreign Area Officer, Logistics Readiness Officer, and Korean linguist. He has published articles in the International Journal of Korean Studies, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and the Air Force Journal of Logistics, as well as reports by the Korea Economic Institute of America and Marine Corps University Press. George’s research interests include U.S. defense and foreign policy as they relate to Northeast Asian and the Korean Peninsula.
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