Covid-19 is attacking the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is strategically responding with an all-terrain lockdown. Following the declaration of the National Emergency Control System at the end of January, it was reported that schools have taken a vacation since February 20th. It turned out that daycares, kindergartens, elementary schools, semi and advanced junior high schools (junior high and high schools), and local universities throughout North Korea have been on vacation for a month since the 20th. This is a measure that neither SARS (2003) nor MERS (2015) had. In other words, Covid-19 has been especially accepted as a serious crisis.
Last year, North Korea drew a blank as a result of a ‘No Deal’ in Hanoi. There was no sign of resolution of chronic shortage due to sustained sanctions. The North Korean authorities have declared a head-on breakthrough since the end of last year, asserting in earnest the spirit of Baekdusan. With the banner of self-recovery and self-prosperity, they tried to open a new way this year. However, this time there is Covid-19 from China.
It would be fortunate if Covid-19 ended as a simple infection. Covid-19 is already strongly affecting the factory and market of the world, China, with a major blow to the global value supply chain. North Korea, being under the shadow of China, is no exception. It seems that trade between North Korea and China near their borders, as well as the attraction of Chinese tourists, which had been going on despite the regulations, will be inevitably affected. Continuing from last year, the possibility of ‘failing’ is increasing this year. It is very likely that the five-year economic development strategy will not reach its goal even at the very end of it.
Of course, there is a possibility to spring back up from the current situation. The North Korean government will be a little free from claiming responsibility of their underachievement by blaming external variables such as Covid-19. However, the lives of the residents suffering from chronic shortage remain. If uncontrollable situations occur due to Covid-19 patients appearing, the lives of the people will be driven to the edge of a cliff. No matter how much emphasis has been placed on ideology and spirit, a country that does not provide basic goods and services is no different from an incompetent household breadwinner.
At the top of patriarchal North Korea is Chairman Kim Jong Un, the heir to Mount Baek’s lineage. He will scold the party leaders and bureaucrats for not fulfilling their duties and turn the responsibility to external forces instead of blaming himself, but how long he can maintain such situations is a question that he himself would also not be able to answer. In order to solve this question, Kim Jong Un has to do two tasks. One is presenting an ideology of his time, and the other is the expansion of state revenue.
His grandfather Kim Il Sung used Juche ideology and his father Kim Jong Il used Songun ideology to rule the country. Chairman Kim Jong Un must establish the governance ideology of his own era and penetrate the spirit of all people to unite, whether through the spirit of Baekdu Mountain or nuclear and economic translation ideology. But it does not appear there is a clear answer to this yet.
In addition, North Korea, which has a relatively high degree of closure, has to increase the resources and supplies that flow into the JangmaDang market, with the nation playing a central role as well as party cadres and bureaucrats. However, in the situation where sanctions are prolonged and external inflow is insufficient, it is difficult to increase the state revenue indefinitely only through internal production. It is the logic of North Korea that they must overcome these difficulties by a straight breakthrough to achieve self-recovery and prosperity, but it has hit a dead-end due to last year’s ‘No Deal’ in Hanoi and this year’s Covid-19.
To overcome this situation, fundamental change in North Korea's system is the answer. However, this is not possible at this time. Another method available to them is to grasp the hands we have been continuously stretching out for North Korean cooperation and conversation. However, North Korea needs its own valid reasons, where they can show themselves without embarrassment and with pride and self-esteem. It is unlikely that the North Korean government, which has the DNA of the March of Suffering, will make this move in the close future. However, one of the differences between the March of Suffering and the current situation this year is that there is a variable called viral infection.
Chronic shortage and starvation do not cross national borders, but viruses cross national borders. Unlike the case of swine fever from Africa, it is now a life-threatening human problem. If a single infected person comes out and they lose control of stopping the virus, we cannot know how North Korea will manage it with their weak, vulnerable health system. Through cooperation with the international community, including our cooperation and support, preemptive quarantine and measures must be taken. It is also a new possibility for North Korea to explore the opportunity to transform itself into a good neighbor of the international community. It is time to remember that if they cannot sustain themselves due to a lack of prospective view and action, North Korea might lose the opportunity of pursuing the Baekdusan spirit and gaining their rights of survival, independence, and power all together.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.