Explainer

North Korea’s Curious COVID-19 Strategy

Pyongyang faces a looming catastrophe but is in no hurry to vaccinate its people.

By , an East Asia specialist at BBC Monitoring.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un listens to then-U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) during a meeting in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 2019.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un listens to then-U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) during a meeting in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

For a country loathe to admit troubles at home, it’s surprising to see the frequency with which North Korea is doing exactly that of late. Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un compared the hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic to the 1950-53 Korean War. Before that, he told North Koreans to brace for the “worst-ever” outcome, invoking comparisons to the country’s deadly 1990s famine, known in the North as the Arduous March. In October 2020, he even shed tears while speaking about the country’s struggles.

Kim is grappling with the toughest challenge of his reign so far, and his stark language indicates the severity of the problem.


How bad is the situation in North Korea?

If the regime is admitting that the country is in dire straits, then it is safe to assume things are really bad.

For a country loathe to admit troubles at home, it’s surprising to see the frequency with which North Korea is doing exactly that of late. Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un compared the hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic to the 1950-53 Korean War. Before that, he told North Koreans to brace for the “worst-ever” outcome, invoking comparisons to the country’s deadly 1990s famine, known in the North as the Arduous March. In October 2020, he even shed tears while speaking about the country’s struggles.

Kim is grappling with the toughest challenge of his reign so far, and his stark language indicates the severity of the problem.


How bad is the situation in North Korea?

If the regime is admitting that the country is in dire straits, then it is safe to assume things are really bad.

Pyongyang has consistently maintained that no infections have been found at home, a claim widely rejected by international health experts. North Korea is unlikely to publicly acknowledge an outbreak. In June, Kim did berate senior party officials for unspecified lapses that caused a “grave incident” related to COVID-19 that put the safety of the country and the people at risk.

Whatever the specifics of the situation, the containment measures have devastated the already battered North Korean economy, worsening food shortages and precipitating a humanitarian crisis.

South Korea’s central bank estimates that the isolated country’s GDP shrank 4.5 percent last year, the biggest drop in more than 20 years, due to lockdown measures, sanctions, and harsh weather. Trade with China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, tumbled 80 percent in 2020. In July, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forecast that North Korea could face a food shortage of about 860,000 metric tons this year.


What about vaccines?

Despite the mounting difficulties, North Korea has shown no urgency to inoculate its population, sending out mixed signals about vaccines that could potentially ease its predicament. South Korea, China, and Russia are among a number of countries that have offered jabs to Pyongyang. The Biden administration has also said it is open to sharing coronavirus vaccines.

The offers have gone unheeded. The North Korean regime refuses help and spares no efforts to brag about the superiority of its system.

The propaganda machinery has pushed a narrative domestically that downplays the efficacy of vaccines, exhorting the public not to let their guard down and prepare for a lengthy battle against COVID-19. In May, state media warned locals that vaccines produced overseas were “not a panacea to all problems.”

News of countries vaccinating their people or life returning to normal is rarely, if ever, transmitted within North Korea, perhaps over fears that it might trigger resentment against the regime for its failure to secure shots. In contrast, the propaganda apparatus has been unusually quick to report on cases rising abroad and the spread of COVID-19 variants.


Why is the regime reluctant to talk about vaccines?

The regime clearly knows it cannot obtain sufficient vaccines for a while to prevent community transmission and thus is eager not to raise people’s hopes about a return to pre-pandemic life, lest they start demanding the lifting of restrictions.

Another factor is how to present the news of foreign-made jabs to North Koreans, who have been fed a propaganda diet of self-reliance, or “Juche.” Having to publicly acquire vaccines from abroad would be a severe blow to the regime’s carefully crafted image.

To be fair, inadequate funds to buy expensive vaccines and a lack of refrigeration facilities to transport and store them also inhibit North Korea’s enthusiasm for jabs. The country claims its public health system is world-class, but international experts say it is appalling, with some hospitals even lacking electricity and running water.

More importantly, any inoculation program would require allowing international workers inside the reclusive country to monitor it, a scenario North Korea finds difficult to digest. The regime is fixated on preventing uncensored external information from trickling into the country—even more so during times of trouble—and has increasingly become worried about losing thought control of its citizens.

North Koreans hearing about global vaccine distribution by word of mouth or through leaked foreign media could raise pressure on Kim and his lieutenants to deliver the same for the country’s citizens.

Even if North Korea manages to secure some shots, the quantity will be barely enough to vaccinate a small proportion of the population. The delayed shipment of 1.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine via Covax, the global vaccine distribution program, is only enough for under 4 percent of the North Korean population. It could create a false sense of security among the public and dampen the watertight vigilance against COVID-19. And how the authorities dole out limited doses is also unclear and could cause disgruntlement if not distributed fairly or seen to favor the elite.


Does Pyongyang even want vaccines?

The regime is trying to look competent in protecting the public against the coronavirus until it can secure enough vaccine stockpiles on its desired terms and a nationwide plan to roll them out. North Korea has praised the global development of vaccines, called out countries for hoarding them, and been in regular contact with international health organizations—all indicating an interest in procuring jabs.

“The development of COVID-19 vaccines and medicines might be the achievement for the common mankind, whereas an unfair reality is to be seen that some countries are procuring and storing the vaccines more than its needs by inspiring the vaccine nationalism plainly when other countries can’t even procure it with their affordability,” North Korea said at the World Health Assembly in June.

Pyongyang is reportedly scrambling to secure vaccines for its military and is said to have ordered North Korean diplomats, intelligence agents, and traders to make vaccine acquisition a top priority. North Korea also attempted to steal vaccine technology from the U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer, according to South Korean intelligence officials, and has imported vaccine samples from Russia and China for research purposes. To show its scientific chops, North Korea even announced last July that a domestically produced vaccine had entered clinical trials, but it is unclear what became of it.


Could the United States or South Korea help?

North Korea is unlikely to openly accept vaccines from its southern neighbor or the United States, a move difficult to explain amid growing talk of U.S. “hostility.” Also, the regime seeks to be on equal footing with the United States, and being a recipient state would put it on the back foot in any future dialogue with Washington.

Just last month, North Korea warned that U.S. humanitarian aid was a “sinister scheme” to interfere in internal affairs. It even described outside assistance as a form of “economic infiltration.”

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat-turned-defector and now a member of South Korea’s main opposition party, has cautioned that Pyongyang may find any public gesture of COVID-19 aid from Seoul as “humiliating.” The offer of help could harm prospects for future talks given that Kim considers North Korea’s supposed virus-free status as “one of the greatest feats of his leadership,” Thae added.

The regime fears an informed citizenry more than the coronavirus, so perhaps a better option than offering access to vaccines would be offering access to information—however tedious that is—about global vaccination efforts to ordinary North Koreans. Despite what many outsiders believe, the regime is extremely sensitive about erosion of public trust, and a bottom-up clamor for vaccines might alter its calculus and instill a sense of urgency.


So what’s next?

North Korea has recently indicated a desire to mend ties with its southern neighbor, so it could, conceivably, accept the joint production of vaccines at their shared facility—now closed—in the border city of Kaesong. In the event that this happens, North Korea will likely portray the vaccine as a locally developed medical miracle made under Kim’s leadership.

Russia and China, both keen to prevent a brewing humanitarian catastrophe on their borders, might be a more suitable alternative for North Korea. Although, a South Korean think tank linked to the country’s intelligence agency claimed that the North is not keen on Chinese jabs due to efficacy concerns and prefers the Russian one but wants it for free. Pyongyang could also turn to Cuba, its “brother in arms,” for its locally produced Abdala vaccine.

Lacking vaccine protection, North Korea remains vulnerable to a mass breach of the coronavirus, which would have profound implications for regime stability, regional security, and lead to a humanitarian disaster. Panacea or not, vaccines can greatly help a resource-strapped North Korea beat the virus and allow a safe reopening. But, even as ordinary North Koreans continue to suffer, the country—at least for now—is betting on its preferred approach in dealing with COVID-19 and one in which it has years of experience—isolation.

Pratik Jakhar is an East Asia specialist at BBC Monitoring. Twitter: @pratikjakhar

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