COVID-19 in North Korea

27 06 2021

Rather than creating chaos in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the COVID-19 pandemic has been turned into an opportunity for the Kim dynasty to further tighten its grip on power, Leonid Petrov writes.

On 23 January 2020, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) became the first country in the world to shut its borders in response to COVID-19. A week before the World Health Organization proclaimed the outbreak of the coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, North Korea’s third-generation Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un, apparently realised the danger a foreign virus could pose to the people and his power.

When the pandemic became official in March 2020, North Korea watchers began speculating on the possibility of it destabilising the DPRK. One commentator predicted that “quarantine will likely fail to stop the spread of coronavirus into North Korea”.

Another assumption was that a serious outbreak in North Korea coronavirus could be more effective than international sanctions in dismantling the diehard communist system and ending its dangerous nuclear program.

In fact, North Korea was well prepared for this, and it has faced other crises better than many may think. Professing its policy of national self-reliance – or Juche – since the 1950s, North Korea survived the prolonged period of Sino-Soviet ideological and military rift before the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance.

That North Korea even continues to exist after the collapse of the Communist Bloc can partly be attributed to its insistence on economic independence. Though this of course has come with harsh military rule maintained by the Kims. In fact, the regime has proved highly resilient, despite predictions of economic reform or regime collapse.

The DPRK survived the Arduous March – a euphemism for its great famine – of the 1990s largely caused by the collapse of its public distribution system, and sealed borders saved the DPRK from the SARS crisis in 2003 and Ebola outbreak in 2014 despite the nation’s dilapidated healthcare system…

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