Editor's Note

The unexpected spread of COVID-19 in North Korea has added another layer of uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula. In this commentary, Philo Kim, Associate Professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) at Seoul National University, analyzes the domestic and external implications of North Korea’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases. While it could adversely impact North Korea’s political and economic system as well as the society on one hand, it could also provide opportunities for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. In this regard, the author proposes that Seoul should embrace humanitarian values, bearing in mind that the peninsula is under a state of crisis, and seek ways to support the North.

On May 12th, North Korea disclosed its COVID-19 status. Over the past two months and three years since the outbreak, North Korea prevented the spread of COVID-19 with a strict policy by placing the country under lockdown. As North Korea lacks adequate healthcare facilities, medicines, and treatments against COVID-19, the pandemic could have possibly paralyzed the country in an instant. While some have previously inferred that there have been suspected cases of COVID-19 in North Korea, there was no way to authenticate this, as authorities in Pyongyang claimed that there were no confirmed cases. Analysts deduce that Pyongyang disclosed the spread of COVID-19 on May 12th as they feared that keeping the spread under wraps could breed social distrust.


The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased sharply in early May. By May 12th, the number of confirmed cases per day has increased to 300,000 cases. This pushed Kim Jong-un to go as far to describe the situation as “a great turmoil to fall on our country since the founding.” By May 23rd, there were approximately 3,000,000 confirmed cases and 400,000 people placed under quarantine treatment. Although the Omicron mutation has a lower fatality rate relative to its contagiousness, a death toll of 68 seems too low to be true.


At a time when inter-Korean relations are as tense as ever, the unexpected spread of COVID-19 in North Korea has added another layer of uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula. On one hand, COVID-19 is expected to affect North Korea’s internal system, such as its politics, economy, and society. On the other, it could also spur discussion on whether it could provide a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations and what policies should be utilized in order to do so.


First of all, how large of an impact would COVID-19 pose on North Korea? While the spread of COVID-19 is likely to damage the economy, the pandemic itself could be manageable, provided that foreign countries offer adequate medicine and treatments. Since North Korea has long established a system of self-reliance at the city, county, and district level, it immediately implemented a policy to completely hinder movement between cities and counties to prevent the spread. Given that 1,340,000 medical personnel have been mobilized, it should not be too difficult to secure accommodation and facilities for quarantine. Compared to the Arduous March, in which circumstances in North Korea were “out of control” and observed 1,000,000 deaths, North Korea seems relatively stable under the COVID-19 pandemic.


However, severe corruption and bureaucracy in medical facilities could result in serious pandemic-related consequences. COVID-19-related deaths due to the lack of medical treatments or drug overdose already triggered social anxiety across the country. Amid a shortage of treatments, the government has promoted folk remedies, which proved to be ineffective. This has raised distrust and concern among the people. In particular, residents were dissatisfied over the lack of distribution due to hoarding and corruption, which has amplified social confusion and political distrust. Despite the leadership’s emergency release and supply of national reserve drugs, this did not yield sufficient results. So, it urgently mobilized the military to distribute them, which indicates that there are many problems associated with the operation of the medical system.


North Korean authorities have been reassuring the public, claiming that “the COVID-19 pandemic can be controlled,” “the mortality rate is low,” and telling them to “trust and follow the party.” Kim Jong-un has also blocked political and social confusion, stating that more dangerous than the virus are “unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will.” In order to prevent trepidations, the leadership issued emergency food supplies. Since drugs have been brought in from China, we should wait and see how it gets distributed within and is used to treat patients. Nonetheless, if treatments are not evenly distributed or if prescription drugs turn out to be ineffective, this could develop into greater social panic.


Will the spread of COVID-19 in North Korea create an opportunity for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations? Seoul and the international community have already announced their willingness to provide aid towards North Korea. The question is whether Pyongyang will preemptively ask for help. During the Arduous March, North Korea voluntarily asked the United Nations for help; this was the first time North Korea reached out to interact with the international society. Questions prevail over whether there will be another opportunity as such in the future. Since Kim Jong-un took power, he has made a lot of efforts to enter the international community, holding summits with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin. On top of that, he has pursued internationalization to open up North Korea and improve its national competitiveness. Unfortunately, after the Hanoi summit in February 2019, Pyongyang cut off its ties from the capitalist world and only interacted with Beijing and Moscow. Currently, it is unlikely for North Korea to cooperate with the international community as it is trying to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of China rather than that of the U.S. or South Korea.


Provided that inter-Korean relations remain strained and that North Korea is unlikely to trade in its national pride for assistance, it will not receive direct support from South Korea in the immediate future. Although the COVID-19 situation in North Korea has been alleviated, treatments and vaccines are necessary. Furthermore, North Korea is in dire need of support, considering the overall health and medical conditions as well as the nutritional status of its residents. Cooperation can be made possible through international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). To do so, South Korea needs to seek ways to support and contact the North. In this context, South Korea’s attitude is crucial. Seoul should embrace humanitarian values and bear in mind that the peninsula is under a state of crisis, rather than take a political approach. In other words, Seoul should not be too focused on issues such as who should take the initiative, or whether North Korea should first reach out. Through this process, South Korea could approach the North with a sincere attitude, opening up opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. I hope that South Korea will take the lead as a country of dignity. 




Philo Kim is associate professor at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS), Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea. He received his Ph.D in Sociology from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA. Professor Kim had formerly served as a senior fellow and director of North Korean Studies Division at a government funded research institute KINU, and also served as president of the Korean Association of North Korean Studies. He is currently serving or served as advisory committee members in Ministry of Unification, Ministry of Defense, National Intelligence Service, Korea Broadcasting System, National Unification Advisory Council, Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, etc. His main research areas include North Korea, Unification issues and Peace Studies. He is the author of Reading North Korea by Chosun Korea, Dreaming Unification Again, Korean Division and Peaceless Life, Kim Jong Un Succession System, North Korean Diaspora, and Flexible and Complex Unification Theory.



Typeset by Seung Yeon Lee, Research Associate
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