North Korea has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus but we know from foreign diplomats that all is not well in the Hermit Kingdom.
When the pandemic began, North Korea locked down its borders with China and appeared to be successfully battling the disease. But that has changed. While the North Korean government claimed they had battled to virus successfully because of their superior health care system, the truth is that there is very little that passes for modern medical facilities outside of Pyongyang. North Korea is now under the most severe lockdown in the world and their economy — already teetering because of incompetence and U.S.-led sanctions — is close to collapse.
Despite its claims to the contrary, North Korea’s restrictions and economic data suggest that “it is having trouble with containing the virus and it had already confirmed coronavirus cases,” according to Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in South Korea.
“It is unreasonable to say that there is no coronavirus case in North Korea,” said Park. “Considering there was a period of about a month during which China had not clearly revealed information about the coronavirus, even though it confirmed cases in Wuhan in late 2019, more than one coronavirus case must have entered into North Korea, but they might not know.” Park added that the North was actively engaging in trade with China during that time, making the spread of COVID-19 across the border likely.
How bad is it really? Kim has been forced to admit to party supporters that the country was in the “worst-ever situation” and that all of his plans to raise the standard of living for the people depend on his supporters — not him.
“Improving the people’s living standards … even in the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges depends on the role played by the cells, the grassroots organizations of the party,” Kim said.
He urged members to carry out the decisions made at a party congress in January, when he vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S. pressure and announced a new five-year national development plan. The congress came months after Kim, during another political conference, showed unusual candor by acknowledging that his plans to improve the economy weren’t succeeding.
During Tuesday’s speech, Kim also criticized the party’s grassroots units for unspecified “shortcomings” he said should be immediately corrected to ensure the “healthy and sustainable” development of the party.
The cells are apparently displeasing the Leader. Whether they’re not fanatical enough, he didn’t say, but what’s clear is that the country is sinking and no one appears to know what to do about it.
Ordinarily, we might say “let them rot.” But China’s nightmare would be a collapse in North Korea leading to a massive exodus of hungry, desperate people. And it remains to be seen if Kim could stay in power if everything went south. That suggests a military coup.
It would be Pakistan on steroids — an unstable government having control of a couple of dozen nuclear weapons. China could be forced to intervene for its own protection — and that wouldn’t be good for U.S. ally South Korea at all.
China may decide to bail out North Korea. Better them than us. But Beijing certainly doesn’t need this kind of unrest along an 850-mile border.