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July 6, 2021

Asia

KOREAN PENINSULA: North Korea admits to Covid-19 transmission in country

BY Victor Cha

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( 3 mins)
  • North Korean leader’s statements at Politburo meeting last week are the first public admittance of the Covid-19 virus inside of the country.
  • The regime does not have a public health system to contain the virus and large numbers of the population suffer from co-morbidities dues to malnutrition; vaccine shipments from COVAX are delayed.
  • The regime will keep its borders closed potentially into 2022 which will put unprecedented strains on the already weak economy.
  • The effect of this dire economic situation on policy toward the Biden administration remains unclear with scheduled US-South Korea military exercises in August becoming an important barometer

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s statements to the Politburo last week about the precipitation of a “great crisis” due to a “crucial failure” in Covid-19 virus prevention measures constitutes the first overt statement by the regime of outbreaks inside of the hermetically-sealed country. Previously, the regime claimed to the WHO that it did not have a single case after testing tens of thousands of citizens.

North Korea does not have a public health system capable of managing a major outbreak. Decades of poor health care and nutritional deficiencies have also created a large vulnerable population with comorbidities. COVAX-supplied vaccines to the North have been delayed, but even these allotments would cover a fraction of the population (1.9 million doses for a population of 22 million). Even though the regime has stated it would accept all WHO-approved for emergency use vaccines, reports are that North Korea did not vaccinate elites with a shipment this spring of Chinese-supplied vaccines suggesting a level of paranoia that is high even for North Korea.

While the regime will use draconian and brutal methods to contain infected populations as necessary, the border closure will have an untold negative impact on the economy, which has already suffered from a near 90% drop in volume with its primary trading partner, China. Commercial satellite imagery in March-April suggested a partial opening of the border for North Korean exports to China (in order to gain hard currency), but no imports from China because of virus transmission dangers. Maritime ship-to-ship commerce is also possible, but Kim’s recent statements suggest all will now be shut down. Moreover, past practice (e.g., North Korean border closures during SARS and MERS) indicates that North Korea will stay shut down months after neighbor South Korea reaches herd immunity (targeted for November). This means the border could stay closed well into 2022.

These trendlines suggest domestic volatility, absent some external intervention, as the weather gets colder and food shortages grow. Important signposts will be reports of food prices (reportedly up by 8-10%) and hard currency reserves. The South Korean government has already proposed vaccine cooperation to head off a potential crisis, but without a firm North Korean response yet. The impact on policy toward the US is unclear. The pandemic probably has something to do with the regime’s relative quiescence in the early months of the Biden administration but US-South Korea scheduled military exercises in August, which Pyongyang often uses to justify provocations, will be an important metric of how seriously the normally belligerent regime has been hit by Covid-19.