View from Japan: North Korea’s coronavirus outbreak and deepening crisis

Editor’s note: this analysis was originally published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and is reposted here with its permission.

Ending a claim that there is no novel coronavirus patient in the country, North Korea has finally admitted the outbreak of the infection. A former North Korean defector who had returned from South Korea to Kaesong City across the demilitarized zone was suspected of having been infected.

In its top story on July 26, the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the North Korean Workers’ Party, reported that an emergency enlarged meeting of the KWP Politburo took place on the previous day. Chairman Kim Jong Un told the meeting that a critical situation happened in which “the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country.” He said that he took the measure of “totally blocking Kaesong City” in the afternoon of July 24 and declared a state of emergency in the relevant area and that he would “shift the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert.”

However, it is an overreaction to block a whole city and shift to the maximum emergency system in response to only one suspected infection. Pyongyang might have taken advantage of the suspected infection to attract attention away from the fact that there were numerous infections in the capital and the border area with China and finding it difficult to conceal this fact. North Korean officials also might have been attempting to signal their future request for large-scale medical support from South Korea. This may suggest that the people’s discontent has heightened enough to require the top-class alert to suppress it.

Rations suspended in Pyongyang

Recent remarks by Chairman Kim indicate his impatience and sense of crisis. At a Politburo meeting on June 7 where life security for Pyongyang residents became a topic, he instructed national countermeasures to be formulated. Since April, North Korea has failed to provide rations to residents in the most part of Pyongyang. In July, special rations for one month (or a half month, according to some information) were provided to mark the death anniversary of the late President Kim Il Sung. But there is no guarantee that such special rations will be continued.

At a meeting of the KWP Central Military Commission on July 18, Kim sternly scolded military cadres as reported on video. The commission pointed out “a series of problems arising in political and ideological life and military activities of commanding officers of the Korean People’s Army” and decided to “intensify the party’s education and guidance to KPA commanders and political activists in line with the party’s idea and requirements.” This means that Kim scolded army leaders for their problematic ideology.

During a field guidance trip to a construction site for the Pyongyang General Hospital as reported on July 19, Kim rebuked the construction coordination commission, a task force comprising KWP, government and military officials for the construction, for “burdening the people” by encouraging their assistance without properly setting the budget for the construction. He then replaced all members of the commission. The commission failed to find hard currency for the hospital construction ordered by Kim and requested the people to bear the burden, a request which normally would have been approved by Kim. Knowing that his starving people would strongly oppose such a mandate, Kim might have passed this responsibility to the commission.

Keep Pressure on North Korea

Several billion dollars in hard currency is annually required to maintain the North Korean dictatorship. The money has been covered by Kim’s governing funds managed by the KWP’s Central Committee Bureau 39, known as Room 39. Due to international sanctions and North Korea’s shutdown of the border with China to prevent the coronavirus outbreak, hard currency under control by Room 39 has reportedly declined below $100 million. As a result, the Kim regime is facing its most serious crisis. We must keep strong pressure on North Korea to make it agree to immediate and collective return of all Japanese abductees and complete dismantlement of nuclear missiles, while keeping a close watch to make sure that South Korea does not breach international sanctions.

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Korea.