When first confronted with the threat of the Coronavirus to North Korea, the “Outstanding Leader” Kim Jong Un denied it. When offered COVID-19 vaccines by the World Health Organization, he turned them down. Didn’t need ’em, he said. Didn’t trust ’em.
Ask Donald Trump how well COVID-denial works. When it was too late, Kim Jong Un did what Trump did; he sealed the borders. But with a vengeance.
North Korea’s main land border is with China. Kim’s lockdown had what the Chinese might call, “North Korean characteristics.” Reportedly, Pyongyang’s border patrols had orders to shoot border-crossers, typically small traders, first; ask questions later.
But the North Korean economy is driven by trade with China. Kim Jong Un shut it down. Kim said he was locking out COVID carriers, but he was also cutting off his best source of medical supplies to fight the COVID outbreak.
And he was shutting out North Korea’s primary source of imported food during a time when a year of bad weather and the pandemic had left the country with a suspected hunger catastrophe.
How bad things might be in North Korea today was evident in a label Kim Jong Un himself used in a recent speech. The country, he said, might be facing a second “arduous march.” That’s a direct reference to the food failure of the late-1990s — a famine that killed as many as three Million people, 15 percent of the North Korean population.
“Might be:” those are the inevitable words to use about what’s happening in North Korea, because when he sealed the borders, Kim Jong Un advised foreigners to leave. Undoubtedly spurred by what they knew of the mismatch of North Korea’s pathetic healthcare system against the pandemic, almost all of them did.
And now that the borders are closed, telephone communications are also being strangled, so almost no information about daily life is getting out. As one respected Korea-watcher put it, “the dark country is darker than ever.”
Bruce W. Bennett is an adjunct international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.
Bennett’s work applies wargaming, risk management, deterrence-based strategy, competitive strategies, and military simulation and analysis. He specializes in “asymmetric threats” such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how to counter those threats with new strategies, operational concepts, and technologies. He is an expert in Northeast Asian military issues, having visited the region over 120 times and written much about Korean security issues. He has also done work on the Persian/Arab Gulf region.
His Northeast Asian research has addressed issues such as future ROK military force requirements, understanding and shaping the ongoing Korean nuclear weapon crisis, Korean unification, the Korean military balance, counters to North Korean chemical and biological weapon threats in Korea and Japan, potential Chinese intervention in Korean contingencies, changes in the Northeast Asia security environment, and deterrence of nuclear threats (including strengthening the U.S. nuclear umbrella). He has worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, U.S. Forces Korea and Japan, the U.S. Pacific Command and Central Command, the ROK and Japanese militaries, and the ROK National Assembly.
Bennett received his B.S. in economics from the California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School, where he is also a professor.