Three years after COVID-19 hit, people around the world have regained their freedom to move between countries. All except in one country: North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
In January 2020, Kim Jong-un decided to isolate the entire country from the outside world in response to COVID. And in June 2023, the DPRK remains closed except for trade with China.
Not long after closing the borders, Kim Jong-un warned of the possibility of a second “arduous march”, a reference to the famine in which at least 1 million people – more likely double that – starved to death in the late 1990s. By June 2021 Korea watchers already anticipated food shortages. But instead of opening the borders, Kim urged his people to stay strong in the face of “tremendous challenges” of COVID.
Even before the border closure, China was North Korea’s only reliable trading partner due to international sanctions imposed in response to Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Due to the collapse of the public distribution system during the arduous march in the 1990s, people living in the country’s northern border regions took to smuggling in food, medicines and other daily necessities, mostly from China. Illicitly traded goods were circulated through jangmadang (grey or informal markets), and it became an important survival mechanism for the country’s economy.
But with the lockdown, both official and unofficial trades were also shut down. At the state level, trade between the two countries has slowly resumed but is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Due to strict policing of the border, smuggling has become pretty much impossible, making the jangmadang almost inactive.
In a report published on March 21 2023, the United Nations called for what it described as the DPRK’s “unparalleled self-isolation” to end. Special rapporteur Elizabeth Salmón said:
I am seriously concerned about the impact of three years of border closures on the people of the DPRK, especially women working in informal markets, people living in poverty, the elderly, the homeless and kkotjebi (homeless children).
She particularly highlighted the plight of women who have faced increasing violence due to their inability to put food on the table for their families.
But because it is so difficult to get information from inside North Korea, it is hard to assess just how bad the situation has become. Even before the pandemic, those of us who watch North Korea from the outside already had limited access to information, but since the shutdown it has become scarcer. Former information sources – such as diplomats and aid workers – have been shut out.
Since the border closure, cases of defection from the regime have dramatically decreased, so we do not get to hear from them. Another informal way of getting up-to-date information (albeit limited) – from defectors’ families, when confirming receipt of remittances – has become more limited.
While lacking adequate triangulation methods for the information, we can confirm inside information only partially. For example, in May 2023 the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that a group of ten defectors had escaped by sea and confirmed the stricter regime controls. The BBC recently reported severe food shortages inside the country.
This leaves us with two conflicting images of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. While ordinary people are suffering from starvation, the Kim family and their close regime members are well off.
Kim Jong-un’s ten-year-old daughter, Kim Ju-ae, frequently appears in public media in expensive luxury outfits, while most ordinary citizens barely have access to basic supplies. And the North Korean government continues its programme of missile tests, despite the crippling economic difficulties.
There are reports of resentment among ordinary people, especially when they see the glamorous Kim Ju-ae on their TV screens. One anonymous person told Radio Free Asia that:
I find it uncomfortable to see Kim Jong-un’s daughter dressed up more than an adult and getting special treatment, like when she walks the red carpet side beside Kim Jong-un and they pass in front of cheering crowds.
But he added that nobody dares say anything publicly.
Why don’t the people rise up?
A BBC documentary broadcast recently quoted three interviewees who spoke of the shoot-to-kill policy for people trying to either defect or cross the recently reinforced border to smuggle food and medicines. They spoke of rising disaffection with the regime, but also said that the level of fear of informers was such that nobody dared speak openly, let alone protest or even petition for reform.
People in North Korea are paralysed by the regime’s politics of fear, its surveillance system, control of mobility, and the songbun (class system), which strictly controls people’s status and life chances. People at the top have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.
Beneath the ruling caste there is no real civic leadership. And being aware that regime propaganda bears little resemblance to reality has not led the people to organise against the repression and hardship, such is the fear.
There is hope that North Korea will reopen its borders in 2023, such is the need for trade and foreign currency. If so, this perhaps is time for the rest of the world to consider how to enable the positive development of civil society in North Korea, rather than focusing simply on the negatives of the regime.