Tourists look into North Korea from across the border in China. Photo: AFP

In the apocalyptic 2013 Hollywood thriller World War Z, North Korea counters a global outbreak of zombies with a simple but savage expedient: It yanks the teeth of its entire population.

Now, amid the coronavirus that is rampaging across China, North Korea has announced border closures. That looks extremely prudent. The disease could potentially carve a lethal swathe through a populace whose immune systems have been weakened by decades of malnutrition and who are served by a decrepit public health system.

However, due to the demands of the markets that supply the majority of the North Korean populace with many of its non-staple foods, medicines and consumer goods, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang can completely seal off its border.

Marketization has made cross-border transit essential – and in the increasingly monetized economy, corruption is rife.

Yet Pyongyang – which has so far reported no cases of coronavirus – will be able to call on one major ally if the virus leaps the frontier from China – the authoritarian nature of its own regime.

Limited public mobility inside the country, combined with the regime’s control over transport, grants North Korean authorities powerful public control and quarantining capabilities, experts told Asia Times.

Markets under threat

As the state distribution system imploded amid the famines of the 1990s, free markets offering goods from across the Chinese border sprung up as a survival mechanism, offering food and medicine. They outlived the famines and became so widespread and so essential that they defied regime attempts to close them in 2009 and 2011.

Today, they have replaced the state distribution system for the vast majority of the populace, who source their daily necessities, including foodstuffs, from them.

But now, North Korea has closed its China border to travelers, cargo and even river traffic. “The state is taking very serious measures, ” specialist media 38 North reported.

This means the markets are now falling back on local products – and there has been a rise in import substitution in the heavily sanctioned nation in recent years – or on inventory.

Rimjin Gang, a Japan-based media that sources information from inside North Korea via smuggled Chinese mobile phones, reported this week on rising anxiety and increasing food prices in the northern part of the country, where rice prices have recently climbed 10%-20%.

A correspondent inside the country told Rimjin Gang that market stallholders are already hoarding inventory, generating subsequent inflation. “We don’t know when trade will resume,” the correspondent said. “All the traders are reluctant to sell their goods because they don’t expect to be resupplied for a while.”

The correspondent noted that prices of medicines, in particular, were skyrocketing.

However, the price of corn – another staple – has only inflated at a minor rate. Moreover, North Korea has been increasing its food self-sufficiency in recent years, stockpiling rice, and is believed to have collected a bumper harvest in 2019.

“Lots of commodities are imported, but a fair amount of rice is privately produced, and it is also produced in collective farms and sold in the markets – though that is illegal,” Peter Ward of specialist media NK Pro told Asia Times.

All this indicates that there is limited famine risk in the immediate future. However, the risk of coronavirus crossing a supposedly closed border is very real.

Can they seal the frontier?

In 2003, North Korea closed its borders against SARS. In 2014, it did the same thing amid the global panic over ebola. Indeed, in both cases the country reported no outbreaks, but coronavirus infection rates in China are now surging off the charts and the disease is now present in every Chinese province.

Still, there are questions over how effectively, and for how long, the regime can wall off China. Due to market trading activity, the border has become increasingly porous, with traders routinely bribing border guards to let them pass.

“Bribery is rampant because that is how business is carried on, the oiling of palms is more common than ever,” Tim Peters, a Seoul-based American missionary who is familiar with the China-North Korean border, told Asia Times. “That is the modus operandi that is in force.”

Another issue is seasonality.

“At this time of year when the rivers are frozen, the border patrol cannot lock down hundreds of kilometers of the Tumen and Yalu Rivers,” Peters added. “The urgency of traders to go back and forth …people are willing to take significant risks in order to do that.”

“I think that, even for a country like North Korea, closing the border is not black and white,” said Go Myong-hyun, who follows North Korea for the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. “With the inflow of goods there is an exposure to people on the other side … it won’t be a 100% closure.”

This suggests the virus will cross the frontier.

“I don’t think they can close the border,” said Ward. “That suggests that there will be an outbreak.”

Weak bodies, decrepit hospitals

South Korea so far has reported 23 cases of the virus, but nobody has yet died, and two patients have recovered and been released from medical care. For this, South Koreans may thank an excellent national medical system and South Korean and Chinese patients benefit from healthy physiques that have been raised in conditions of prosperity.

North Korea does not have the latter two advantages.

“North Koreans are more vulnerable because of malnutrition,” said Peters. ”Their immune systems are going to be weaker, and that is why the government is terrified of this virus.”

The country has a history of malnutrition, and from a population of 25.9 million, the UN reported in May 2019 that 10 million North Koreans face “severe food shortages.”

“North Korean hospitals are not good places to go if you are sick: in winter, some hospitals don’t even have glass in their windows,” a former healthcare worker with personal experience of the North Korean hospital system told Asia Times. “Even in a normal situation, they don’t have enough to care for their population.”

The worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he did not wish to compromise the operations of the group he formerly worked with, which is still active in North Korea, noted that many hospitals around the country lack not only basic medicines, but even soap and disinfectant.

“They don’t have IV fluids,” he said. “They make their own solution, and often use beer bottles [to dispense the solutions].”

He agreed with Peters about the potential weakness of the populace. “Their immune systems are weaker, and that is why TB is so prevalent there,” he said. “They are more vulnerable.”

Containment feasible

However, despite these weaknesses, the North Korean regime does have one advantage when it comes to containing viruses.

“The lack of beds and the health system is a factor, but the mediating system is the limited mobility in North Korea,” said Go of the Asan Institute. “If you want to predict the spread of a virus, look at the amount of traffic and of people-to-people exchanges. In North Korea that dynamic is limited, as the regime has control over internal mobility.”

All public transport is state-controlled and all modes of vehicular transport are – at least on paper – state-owned. Moreover, internal passports limit freedom of movement around the country, and there are only two land borders – China and Russia – given that South Korea is cordoned off by the DMZ.

This lack of mobility provides a “natural quarantine” effect.

“That would help the regime in controlling the spread, so though they don’t have resources to cure the infected, they could effectively quarantine people,” Go said. “And if it moved from the border to the interior, that is something the regime could control very easily.”

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