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After months of denying that it had any cases of Covid-19 in the country, the North Korean government convened an emergency meeting on Saturday, 28 July to announce that it would introduce an elevated state of emergency, claiming that a former defector to South Korea had returned and was infected. This claim was puzzling in two respects. First, South Korean authorities claimed that there was no evidence that the former defector – who arrived in South Korea in 2017 – was infected. He had, however, been under investigation for a rape allegation and under orders not to leave the country. Second, it is unlikely that the defector would be North Korea’s first Covid-19 patient. Recent photos from the country suggest widespread mask usage and, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has resumed public appearances after his absence in April, he is still less visible than usual.
Instead, this episode may be part of a broader effort to encourage vigilance and discipline during one of North Korea’s most challenging moments in decades. Pyongyang has continued to reject offers of medical assistance from South Korea and the US, but, with the border with China closed, few goods are entering the country and what little has come has been slow to arrive. North Korea’s economy could contract by at least 6% this year, which would be worse than any year since the “Arduous March” famine in the 1990s. Kim has already called upon North Koreans to prepare themselves for a challenging period – and has continued to boast of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, noting at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Korean War’s armistice on Tuesday, 28 July that “our national security and future will be firmly guaranteed permanently” by the deterrent. North Korea, he said, “will never stop honing the most powerful national defense capacity.”
Despite this rhetoric, however, it is possible that North Korea and the US could still reach a tentative agreement before the US presidential election in November. Although talks have not resumed – and Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both recently downplayed the likelihood of another summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump – both leaders may be incentivized to conclude an “October surprise” deal. Trump may seek a bargain as part of a bid to boost his reelection prospects, more to cement a narrative that he has made good deals for the American people than because a North Korean agreement in particular would sway voters. He was already close to offering partial sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of some elements of North Korea’s nuclear program at the Hanoi summit in 2019. While Kim rejected that offer last year, the economic contraction, the possibility of additional incentives from Trump (troop drawdowns in South Korea, for example), and the prospect of a new US president less inclined to make similar concessions to North Korea could lead him to reconsider.