North Korea May Be Trapped Between Famine and Plague

As COVID-19 sweeps through the country, outside help is desperately needed.

By , the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Kim Jong Un wears a face mask on television
Kim Jong Un wears a face mask on television
Kim Jong Un is seen in a face mask on television for the first time during a news broadcast in Seoul on May 12. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Back in January 2020, North Korea looked on with concern as a then-novel coronavirus epidemic emerged in China. Preventing the spread of this virus beyond China’s borders was a matter of “national survival,” Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, said.

For 28 months afterwards, North Korea implausibly reported zero cases of COVID-19—even as the virus tore through the rest of the world. Like the Chinese Communist Party next door, the Workers’ Party of Korea opted to pursue a zero-COVID strategy premised on sealing off the country’s borders. Unlike China, enforcement consisted of, among other measures, shoot-on-sight orders.

The zero-case claim came to a screeching halt last week as the country reported the first case of the omicron variant of COVID-19—and the BA.2 subvariant—within its borders. Not a single North Korean citizen is known to have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with no confirmed previous COVID-19 cases, it’s unlikely that any natural immunity to earlier coronavirus variants exists either.

Back in January 2020, North Korea looked on with concern as a then-novel coronavirus epidemic emerged in China. Preventing the spread of this virus beyond China’s borders was a matter of “national survival,” Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, said.

For 28 months afterwards, North Korea implausibly reported zero cases of COVID-19—even as the virus tore through the rest of the world. Like the Chinese Communist Party next door, the Workers’ Party of Korea opted to pursue a zero-COVID strategy premised on sealing off the country’s borders. Unlike China, enforcement consisted of, among other measures, shoot-on-sight orders.

The zero-case claim came to a screeching halt last week as the country reported the first case of the omicron variant of COVID-19—and the BA.2 subvariant—within its borders. Not a single North Korean citizen is known to have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and with no confirmed previous COVID-19 cases, it’s unlikely that any natural immunity to earlier coronavirus variants exists either.

In a matter of days, state media acknowledged that more than 1 million cases of “fever”—a euphemism for suspected COVID-19, given the lack of diagnostic testing capacity—had spread across the country. Officially, 50 deaths have been attributed to the “fever” taking over the country. Pyongyang, the national capital that saw a major military parade in the final days of April, is the epicenter of the outbreak. For what is thought to be the first time, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was shown to be wearing a mask in state media.

For Kim, who celebrated the completion of a decade in power just months ago, the arrival of omicron and its subvariants in North Korea represents a severe threat. Yet COVID-19 is far from the only challenge for the country right now. North Korea may once again be on the brink of famine. On New Year’s Day this year, Kim delivered remarks that emphasized not nuclear weapons and missiles, but agricultural output. North Korea is no stranger to food shortages, but the combination of widespread food insecurity and a deadly respiratory virus is a new and frightening challenge.

While the situation remains fluid, this set of parallel challenges appears to pose a fundamental dilemma for the regime in how to manage the spread of the virus.

Days before state media reported on the confirmed arrival of omicron in the country, Pyongyang went into a lockdown that strongly suggested a COVID-19 outbreak may have been underway. Following the acknowledgement of COVID-19’s presence in North Korea, the Workers’ Party Politburo met to discuss “the epidemic prevention crisis state.”

According to North Korean state media, Kim “called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas and organize work and production after closing each working unit, production unit and living unit from each other so as to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus.” This amounts to a call for a national-level lockdown. North Korea’s top-down system should be able to do that fast. But all signs are that the country hasn’t gone into total lockdown just yet—even if Pyongyang and other cities have.

Journalists in South Korea peering across the inter-Korean border with telescopes continue to see signs of normal agricultural activity in farms to the south, suggesting there may be a rural-urban divide in how lockdowns are being implemented. The explanation for this seems to be the inescapable reality of what a serious lockdown would mean: an assured and catastrophic famine. May, it just so happens, is the start of North Korea’s rice planting season, which runs through October. This five-month window may, in reality, be a two-month window, as May and June are generally the most favorable for maximizing rice production. Producing rice, as the national staple food, is essential for preventing colossal food shortages.

North Korea has already seen its food stocks run low amid unfavorable harvests during its 28 months of self-imposed isolation. Going all-in on a national lockdown may save lives from the “fever” that’s taken hold across the country, but it could come at the cost of lives lost later to starvation and malnutrition.

It’s unclear what steps the country’s leadership might take if the worst comes to pass and omicron/BA.2 prove impossible to contain. In an unusual public call to draw on China’s experiences, normally shunned by a regime that avoids acknowledging foreign influences, Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim told North Korean authorities to study the “policies, successes, and experiences” of China, among other countries, and to “actively follow” their approach. This could indicate a predisposition to favor a national-level lockdown to contain the pandemic, even if it does significantly increase the odds of mass starvation.

There’s no quick and easy fix for North Korea’s domestic dilemmas. Ever-insular since its national lockdown in early 2020, Pyongyang remains deeply uninterested in seeking outside help. Pyongyang repeatedly rejected COVAX-allocated vaccines for its people—to the point that the international consortium announced in late April that vaccines allocated for North Korea would be diverted elsewhere.

Throughout its 28 months of pre-omicron lockdown, North Korea also steered clear of diplomacy with either the United States or South Korea. This tendency predates the pandemic and has more to do with Kim’s general strategic recalibration in the aftermath of the February 2019 Hanoi summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. During the pandemic, Pyongyang’s isolation likely was intensified by a sense that accepting external assistance would present new vectors for the virus to introduce itself into North Korea.

With North Korea now fully in the throes of a COVID-19 breakout, the possibility of Kim accepting external assistance may be more likely. Despite North Korea’s slogans emphasizing “self-reliance,” the country has repeatedly accepted offers of foreign aid, including from South Korea and the United States, during previous periods of economic difficulty. Indeed, part of the reason North Korean officials may not have accepted COVAX-allocated AstraZeneca viral vector vaccines was because of a preference for U.S.-made mRNA vaccines

South Korea’s newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has said that he would be willing to offer North Korea coronavirus-specific assistance as necessary. The Biden administration has also urged North Korea to open its borders to facilitate a vaccination campaign. While North Korea may have once seen reason to push back on these offers amid perceptions of ulterior motives, that may change as the crisis worsens.

Washington and Seoul should be prepared to unconditionally extend assistance to North Korea if and when Pyongyang demonstrates a willingness to accept it. There will be an opportunity later this month, when Yoon meets his American counterpart Joe Biden, to unilaterally message a willingness to assist North Korea without conditions. Even as the world anticipates a seventh North Korean nuclear test and continued missile testing, Washington and Seoul should take steps to engage Pyongyang on pandemic-related assistance. Quite simply, if North Korea tests its seventh nuclear device at 9 a.m. on a given day and requests pandemic-related assistance at 9:30 a.m., there should be no hesitation in responding positively—even as the nuclear testing should be condemned.

The first principle guiding Washington and Seoul in approaching Pyongyang as it navigates this period of crisis should be to ensure that the suffering of innocent North Korean citizens at the hands of the pandemic can be minimized. An effort to this end that succeeds could restore lines of communication, promote confidence, and set in the place the conditions that could allow for a return to talks—even without any explicit linkage between the nuclear and missile issues and the pandemic.

Ankit Panda is the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea. Twitter: @nktpnd

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