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Soldiers in hazmat suits marching to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea
Korean Central News Agency/EPA-EFE

North Korea’s costly COVID response is pushing Kim Jong-un to play political games

In April 2020, I wrote about North Korea’s efforts to protect itself from COVID-19. The regime was genuinely afraid about the spread of the disease because it knew the country’s healthcare system wouldn’t cope if the virus took hold.

Initially there was acceptance that, for the most part, North Korea hadn’t witnessed an outbreak as severe as those seen everywhere else. Whether that’s still the case is hard to say. There’s a serious lack of data on the country, and the authenticity of North Korea’s claims to have had zero cases has long been questioned in the west.

But even if true, the effects of the pandemic are being felt in other ways. North Korea closed its borders early in January 2020 to shelter from the virus. The cost of this has been enormous. The country is subject to international sanctions, which limit trade. In the past, it has mitigated their effects via informal trade and state-sponsored smuggling across the border with China. But with the border closed, this hasn’t been possible.

As a result, North Korea has experienced drastic food shortages. Reducing legitimate and illegitimate trade with China has also reduced economic activity, preventing North Korean goods from being sold across the border and industrial supplies, consumer goods and food being imported from China. With food scarce and incomes down, UN experts have warned that the risk of starvation looms for the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Kim shows vulnerability

It’s interesting that North Korea’s head of state, Kim Jong-un, has made no attempt to hide these problems from his people. A positive public image of his regime is essential for its survival – but, over the summer, state television unexpectedly allowed a North Korean citizen to comment that Kim looked “emaciated”. He has indeed lost weight.

This suggests that for Kim, the combined impact of COVID-19 and sanctions is a serious matter. The dire situation the country is in – and the heightened threat of losing power as a result – is prompting Kim to change his behaviour. By being seen to lose weight, he’s claiming solidarity with the people by showing that he too is affected by shortages, deflecting blame onto the international system that has sanctioned the country.

Equally, Kim has worked to to cast his regime in a positive light by convincing the North Korean people that they are being protected from the virus by his government.

For instance, North Korea pulled out of the postponed Olympics in Tokyo over the summer, for fear that returning athletes would bring the virus home. This was the first time North Korea hadn’t entered a summer Olympics since boycotting the 1988 Seoul games. It was the only major country not to send athletes due to the pandemic.

Soldiers on horseback parading in front of crowds in Pyongyang, North Korea
The annual military parade to celebrate the founding of the country was noticeably scaled down this year. Korean Central News Agency/EPA-EFE

This stepping back from important events continued throughout 2021. In September, North Korea marked the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the country with a notably muted celebration compared to normal. Goose-stepping soldiers replaced their traditional military attire with hazmat suits and there were no lengthy displays of ballistic missiles. The fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, and its threat to power, has dictated domestic policy to emphasise promoting national unity rather than displaying military prowess.

No rush for vaccines

Yet alongside this fear and uncertainty, there have also been signs that North Korea is confident in its ability to keep the virus at bay. In late summer, the public ministry rejected 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine allocated to North Korea through the Covax vaccine-sharing programme. North Korea instead offered these to countries with low vaccine supplies and surging cases.

Although a spokesperson for the UN has confirmed recently that Pyongyang will continue to communicate with Covax to receive vaccines in the coming months, it’s important to note that this was not an isolated decision. In July, North Korea rejected a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine too.

According to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think-tank affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence agency, this was due to concerns over the blood-clot risk associated with the vaccine, while some experts have suggested the Sinovac vaccine was given away because of concerns over its effectiveness. If so, it would seem Pyongyang is confident enough in how it’s handling the pandemic to hold out for the vaccines it prefers.

A newly developed anti-aircraft missile being tested in North Korea
Recent tests have included a new hypersonic missle. Korean Central News Agency/EPA-EFE

But that doesn’t mean North Korea is comfortable with its current position. It has recently conducted missile tests, while satellite images show that its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon has been expanded. Such actions have historically been used to draw attention to the country when it wants to talk.

Kim has demonstrated in the past his acute awareness and understanding of global politics. The recent decision of the US to leave Afghanistan and the silence of every country in the region bar China over the Aukus agreement have signalled how the balances of power are changing in Asia. Kim is well rehearsed in using the geopolitics of the region to press for North Korean advantages.

Given the country’s fear of the coronavirus and current lack of vaccines, if North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear expansion do result in negotiations, what it advocates for could be the means to get itself out of its current COVID-related hardship. North Korea did recently accept medical supplies from the World Health Organization. But this doesn’t necessarily indicate that it wants or needs additional help.

Equally, it may be that the country is comfortable to wait for more vaccines from Covax, and that all this posturing – from donating vaccines to testing missiles – is instead a way of pushing the regime’s big ongoing goal: the lifting of sanctions.

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