SEOUL—The spread of COVID-19 in North Korea is not bad news for leader Kim Jong Un. By locking down the entire country, he can assert his regime’s power like never before. He has the power to arrest anyone suspected of breaking the rules for any reason, whether it’s looking for food or needing to see a friend or seek medicine.
He may also blame the scourge on a network of health officials. Their survival is now threatened. Some of them, having been in contact with victims of the disease, may be ill, but all must fear for their lives as Kim investigates how the disease broke out on a large scale. It calls for ‘correcting the discrepancies revealed in the supply of medicines’ when it is well known that North Korean medical facilities are largely devoid of medicines of any kind, let alone those capable of curing COVID-19 .
To show he means business, Kim has relied on a familiar source of support – his 1.2 million armed forces, of which he is supreme commander. Pyongyang’s Korea Central News agency said it had issued an order to “immediately stabilize the supply of medicine in Pyongyang city by involving the powerful forces of the People’s Army military medical field”.
The military expose themselves to draconian sanctions if they do not do something quickly to stem a crisis over which they have no real control.
“If all senior officials don’t exert effort and show arduous and fighting spirit,” Kim said, “they cannot take the strategic initiative in the ongoing anti-epidemic war.” They “must not allow any imperfection and vulnerabilities by maintaining high tension and vigilance in acute anti-epidemic warfare.”
The call to rally the armed forces behind the campaign showed frustration in a struggle in which they have no expertise and no authority other than the ability to carry out a purge on Kim’s behalf. KCNA released the dispatch in English and Korean, indicating the need to prove Kim is fully accountable to an international audience.
“Kim is facing a lot of instability right now, unable to feed his people, meet their consumption needs, and cope with the COVID outbreak,” said RAND Korea Observer Bruce Bennett. Corporation. “Kim is trying to portray himself as a God-like figure – how could he let things like this happen? And so he has to blame others…I expect there’s quite a bit of ongoing purges in North Korea to confirm others’ responsibility for the problems.
Kim’s need to assert his absolute authority makes it impossible to believe the seemingly factual reports published by his propaganda machine, notably the party newspaper Rodong Sinmoun and KCNA, which claim to show the number of deaths, the number of people affected and the number of people cured.
There’s no way to verify these numbers, but we can assume the actual numbers are much higher than the 56 deaths and 1.5 million reported by North Korean media as having suffered from “fever”.
NK News, a website in Seoul, said “fever” was “a likely euphemism for the virus that reflects a likely inability by North Korea to clinically diagnose all positive COVID-19 infections due to the ability limited test”. Kim “only admits a very small number of COVID cases,” Bennett observed. “The others are just ‘fevers’. This is the management of North Korean perception at work.
It’s a simple blame game and Kim – who is known for ordering the execution of anyone he suspects of working against him or his interests – will not hesitate to imprison or kill those accused of not not have eradicated the disease. He’s not saying a word about vaccinations, which he’s withheld from potential foreign donors throughout the pandemic, and he certainly isn’t accepting help offered by new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.
Never mind that Conservative Yoon does not tie medical aid to his demand for the “complete denuclearization” of the North. Kim also turned down offers of vaccines, long before acknowledging the pandemic in his own country, from Yoon’s liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who implored him for dialogue and reconciliation.
“Kim cannot accept any blame because he is part of a ‘god’, the Kim family regime, which is infallible,” said David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “His deliberate political decision-making has made the tragedy worse than it should be. He prioritized the development of nuclear and missile programs over the welfare of the Korean people living in the north.
By shifting blame, Kim avoids responsibility for failing to take one of the basic steps needed to stop the spread of the disease. He holds himself and his inner circle above reproach while lower-ranking bureaucrats are guilty of betraying the country by their failure to prevent a disease his regime claimed had not broken out. nowhere within its borders.
This claim, of course, has never been credible. It has always been impossible to imagine that Kim, by closing the border with China shortly after the virus was reported in Wuhan in December 2019, had in fact succeeded in preventing him from entering North Korea. He had either been in denial, refusing to believe what was going on around him, or waged a deliberate campaign of fabrication and misinformation.
Nor is it possible to believe the apparently factual reports published by his propaganda machine, notably the party newspaper Rodong Sinmoun and KCNA, which claims to show the number of deaths from the disease, the number of people affected and the number of people cured.
There is no way to verify these figures, but it can be assumed that they are much higher than the 1.2 million who had suffered from “fever” and the 50 deaths reported by North Korean media. NK News, a website in Seoul, said “fever” was “a likely euphemism for the virus that reflects a likely inability by North Korea to clinically diagnose all positive COVID-19 infections due to the ability limited test”.
What is certain is that North Korea is in the midst of a grave emergency that presents a tremendous opportunity for Kim to crack down harder than ever on his own people. The urgency, however, confronts him with enormous risks. He may not be able to quell widespread discontent with his regime and will have to fight open opposition. He may end up finding his grip weakened or compromised.
“Kim is still deeply worried about her grip on power.”
While “pointing out that the drugs provided by the state have not been properly supplied to residents through pharmacies on time,” KCNA said, Kim said that “officials from the Cabinet and the public health sector in charge of supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly acknowledging the current crisis, but only speaking from the spirit of serving the people with dedication.
Foolishly, as if COVID could be cured by an aspirin or two, KCNA reported that “the People’s Army urgently deployed its powerful forces to all pharmacies in Pyongyang City and began supplying medicine to the part of the 24-hour service system”.
North Korean media painted a picture of drugs reaching those in need, all at Kim’s request. A KCNA dispatch went completely beyond that, saying the officers “expressed their willingness to pass on the precious medicine, the elixir of life, associated with Kim Jong Un’s great love…”.
The increasingly euphoric dispatch said that the officers “were fervently calling to aggressively defuse the public health crisis created in Pyongyang and to become honorable victors by working heart and soul to ensure that the revolutionary surgeons of the great era of Kim Jong Un can proudly review how they are devoutly implementing the Party’s fighting order in the war against the evil virus.
Kim even “censured the director of the central procuratorate for idleness and neglect of duty feeling no responsibility and scruples and playing no role.”
Such talk is a palpable cover-up of the simple fact that drugstore shelves are virtually empty, there is no simple cure for COVID-19 anywhere on earth, and hospitals in the North have none of the facilities necessary for extreme cases.
The reason for this propaganda blitz is that Kim himself is to blame for diverting huge funds to a nuclear and missile program that showcases his own power while his health care system is known to be inadequate.
Presumably, a small elite within Pyongyang has access to all the medical assistance it needs, but the vast majority of North Korea’s 26 million people do not have access to care. Reports by North Korean media give an optimistic and totally false picture of Kim’s concern for his people.
Now Kim faces the risk, although he hates the idea, of having to accept foreign aid in the form of vaccines and medical equipment needed to fight the disease. Without saying a word about vaccines, he may be forced to accept them on a large scale. If that happened, foreign donors would insist on knowing who received the vaccines, where and how they were administered.
“He fears the epidemic and has put in place measures to try to prevent or contain it for the past two years,” said Maxwell, a retired colonel who has completed five tours of South Korea with the special forces. “He put in place more drastic population control measures and resources in the name of COVID to further oppress the Korean people.”
Under these circumstances, however, Kim may have no choice but to allow the entry of foreign experts who, once they return home, would tell the world how much North Korea is suffering under his rule.
For now, Kim is doing everything possible to avoid exposing what is happening and the full extent of the illness. While wasting huge sums on nuclear warheads and missiles to transport them to distant targets, Kim has ruthlessly deprived his people of what they need in terms of medicine, food and many other things to survive.
“Kim is still deeply concerned about his grip on power because the real threat to him does not come from the United States, as he claims, but from his own people,” said David Straub, a senior American diplomat at the retirement in Seoul. “He led purges of leaders under him, murdered his uncle and half-brother, and used COVID as an excuse to close the whole country to the rest of the world for over two years. COVID only adds to the domestic threat against him.
By controlling “the flow of information,” Straub said, Kim “can accept international vaccines or not, while blaming others, inside and outside North Korea, for anything that doesn’t. don’t go to the country”.
Right now he is fighting for his own life as the leader of North Korea. He knows that if he is unable to curb the disease, he and his diet may not survive.