This week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended the funeral of a top official as he tries to play down the threat of COVID-19 in his country. State media photos showed a maskless Kim Jong-un carrying the coffin of Hyon Chol-hae, a Korean People’s Army marshal who reportedly played a key role in mentoring Kim before he became Supreme Leader. Kim admitted earlier this month that his country faced “turmoil” after an outbreak of COVID-19 in his country where no one is vaccinated.
State media said on Monday that 2.8 million people have fallen ill due to an unidentified fever but only 68 of them died since late April, an extremely low fatality rate if the illness is COVID-19, as suspected.
The health crisis has led to draconian lockdowns in North Korea, and reports also indicate that Kim is using the pandemic as an excuse to intensify his authoritarianism.
For example, the Times reports that Pyongyang has issued fresh orders for its border forces to shoot intruders.
The virus has previously led to violence on the border. In 2020, a South Korean fisheries official fell off his boat and ended up in North Korean waters.
Border troops reportedly proceeded to shoot him dead and then set his body alight due to fears he could be carrying the virus.
Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the Rand Corporation think tank, spoke to the Times about how Kim is responding to the outbreak.
She said: “Kim’s blaming of North Korean officials for the outbreak underscores his limitations as a leader.
“Rather than taking responsibility for the oversight — which is an understatement, given the opportunities Kim has had to address the pandemic for more than two years — he chooses to fault his officials.”
Some felt Kim’s grip on the country could be threatened by the pandemic, but Ms Kim believes it may help him take more control.
She said: “North Korea revolves around the Kim persona, with effectively no mechanism to check his powers.
“The pandemic may put greater pressure on his leadership. Notably, though, the pressure will not work in the way that we would expect such a crisis to impose on a leader.
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Kee Park, a Harvard neurosurgeon who has made 18 working visits to North Korea, also told the Times: “Pyongyang believed they didn’t need vaccines because they were very confident that the virus wouldn’t be able to enter.
“Their pandemic strategy was to close the border and wait to ride it out. It was the same approach they took successfully with Sars and Mers.”
This strategy doesn’t appear to be paying off this time, however, as the country already grappling with famine and poverty without the disruption of lockdowns and illness now faces a worsening crisis.
Youngchang Song, a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, told DW that he is hearing stories of hardship as a result of the Covid crisis.
He said: “It is like the perfect storm there at the moment.”
“People were already suffering from shortages of food because the spring months, before the first crops can be harvested, is well-known to be a time of hunger.
“Now people cannot go out to work in the fields to tend their crops, there is nothing to eat and no medicines in the shops, they cannot go to the underground markets and nothing is being smuggled over the border from China. There is just nothing for them.”