North Korea is facing a Covid disaster. What does it mean for Kim Jong Un?


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be in big trouble. His country has announced an “explosive” Covid-19 outbreakreporting more than 2 millions of cases of what he calls “fever” in just over a week since his first reported case.

In a largely underdeveloped and notoriously isolated country of 25 million, where the vast majority of people think they are not vaccinated, it has the potential to be a humanitarian disaster of a scale that threatens any government’s hold on power in the world.

But Pyongyang is not like any other government. In fact, some experts say that rather than weakening Kim, the outbreak could make him more powerful, giving him an excuse to tighten his grip.

Kim has at his disposal a vast propaganda machine and the ability to block outside information that could help him shape the narrative of this crisis in his favor, just as his predecessors did with the 1990s famine that he was thought to have done. starve hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Death. At the time, Pyongyang had called his problems a “tough march” and blamed them partly for the floods and partly for US sanctions.

Kim is already showing signs of trying to manage this latest crisis. Even before the outbreak was announced, Kim had warned his officials to prepare for “another, more difficult Arduous March.” It seemed to be a reference to the severe food shortage the country is once again facing and which was likely exacerbated by the same border blockades introduced by Kim to keep the virus out.

Analysts are also suspicious of the timing of Pyongyang’s recognition of the Covid epidemic. Her earlier insistence that she was free from Covid had been a source of widespread skepticism and some suggest that her sudden opening about her issues is deliberately timed to coincide with a visit to the region by President Joe Biden, who was to arrive in Korea. South Thursday evening local time.

“The fact that Kim Jong Un has decided to come out and publicly announce this health crisis is quite significant,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korean researcher at Human Rights Watch. “(It) may have a political element, of course.”

This may not be the only way Kim has to make sure Pyongyang is at the top of the agenda when the president meets the new southern leader Yoon Suk Yeol.

Intelligence from Washington It suggests that Kim is planning a nuclear test or ICBM launch in conjunction with the visit – an assessment shared by South Korea, which has prepared plans to respond to Pyongyang’s potential “provocations”. This would fit Kim’s recent behavior. According to Seoul, on the same day North Korea announced its outbreak, it launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

The persistent unknown is this: Will Kim’s problems with Covid distract him from such a show of power, or will they make him more belligerent?

While Pyongyang may be seeking attention, few suggest it is overstating its outbreak. Indeed, until recently its lack of officially reported cases had sparked widespread skepticism.

His official death toll on Thursday was 62, but experts say the real figure could be much higher and is likely to rise.

State media reported that some patient samples showed they were carriers of the Omicron variant, whose high transmissibility could prove devastating in a population that is not only largely unvaccinated but – if official reports are to be believed – not. has a natural through previous immunity.

North Korea is not known to have imported coronavirus vaccines, despite being eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing program, Covax. Last year, he publicly turned down an offer of nearly three million doses of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines.

on Monday, three North Korean cargo planes flew to China and back, according to a South Korean government official familiar with the matter. It is unknown what the planes were carrying, but the rare trip came after China pledged to help North Korea with the Covid epidemic.

“There is no evidence that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from Covid-19,” said Boram Jang, East Asian researcher at Amnesty International.

“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an inconceivable abandonment of defending the right to health”.

In response, Kim appeared unusually willing to admit the problems facing his country, declaring the “gravest state of emergency” and ordering the blockade of all provinces and cities.

But whether this will fuel popular anger against him seems unlikely to many experts given Kim’s ability to manipulate the state’s sizable propaganda mechanism, as long as he can prevent the crisis from directly affecting the country’s ruling elites.

“If senior elites start dying en masse – there are quite a few and we don’t know if they are vaccinated – if many of them die from it, questions might be asked as to why North Korea didn’t get vaccinated earlier.” , said Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of Seoul-based NK News.

Since the outbreak was announced, in addition to videos telling people what to do if they show symptoms of Covid, state TV has spent a lot of time on clips of Kim inspecting epidemic command centers and pharmacies, possibly designed to show that he has controlling the epidemic situation.

However, Human Rights Watch’s Yoon said the very fact that Pyongyang was publicly acknowledging the crisis suggested it had “very serious concerns” about the outbreak and the possibility of it spreading.

“(North Korea) has an unvaccinated population and chronic malnutrition and they have no medicines to treat the underlying symptoms of Covid-19,” Yoon said. “North Korea is much more fragile than any other country we know.”

Yoon said North Korea now urgently needs foreign aid, especially vaccines and medicines, and even if it accepts help – offers have come from both the south and the World Health Organization – the vaccination process is likely to be. slow because the country does not have the infrastructure to store or transport vaccines.

“It will test his leadership and create some urgency for a very creative storytelling in the North Korean propaganda apparatus,” he said. O’Carroll of NK News.

A priority for Kim’s state media will be to explain why severe border blockades have failed to keep Omicron out. O’Carroll pointed out that not only have those lockdowns failed, but they have been a driving factor in the severe food shortages facing countries as they had prevented grain and fertilizer deliveries.

One option for Kim would be to put on a very public show of humility.

“We’ve seen Kim Jong Un cry over the nation’s sacrifices (in the past) – I think that’s the kind of thing he could do to try and dampen the indignation,” O’Carroll said.

“North Korean citizens have certainly been through a lot,” he said. “The first thing he might do is really apologize and take the blame.”

Meanwhile, if Kim is really thinking about a show of force to coincide with Biden’s visit, she might do well to think about one of her latest shows of power.

O’Carroll said the timing of the North Korean outbreak suggested that a massive military parade held by Kim last month to mark the 90th anniversary of his army’s founding had become a “super-diffusion event.”

The crowd watching the parade was projected onto a film that celebrated without masks.

“We know they flew with citizens from all over North Korea to attend and celebrate that event,” he said. “This is the perfect petri dish for the spread of this virus, so I think the parade will go down in history as a bad idea for North Korea.”