A student wearing a face mask undergoes a temperature check as he arrives for a lecture on preventative measures against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus at the Pyongyang University of Medicine on April 22. Pyongyang has imposed tight restrictions against the pandemic that has swept the world since emerging in neighboring China, closing its borders and for a time quarantining thousands of its own citizens as well as hundreds of foreigners, and insists that it has not seen a single case. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

Almost lost from sight during the recent commotion over where Kim Jong Un had disappeared to for nearly three weeks –and why – was another very big question that is still unanswered even after his May Day reappearance.

We don’t really know how badly or sparingly the Covid-19 pandemic has intruded upon the isolated country.

Possibilities range from A to Z:

A. The coronavirus was making such frightening inroads in much or all of North Korea that Kim – perhaps also suffering from other health problems – felt compelled to leave his Pyongyang base and isolate himself at one of his villas in the provinces that are equipped to serve as away-from-home headquarters.

Z. North Korea has done such a thorough job of isolating itself, largely by closing its borders, that it deserves to be included in that often cited list of Asian island and peninsular virus success stories alongside South Korea, Taiwan and (sometimes) Japan.

The North Korean authorities have been relentlessly reminding people to wear masks and otherwise take care to avoid the virus, using broadcasting and face-to-face lectures to spread the exhortations.

However, the regime releases very little of the sort of information that would permit a long-distance count of Covid-19 infection cases and death. Indeed, Pyongyang goes so far as to maintain that the country has experienced no cases at all – a claim belied by unofficial news reports of virus hot spots cropping up here and there, with the major northeastern city of Chongjin especially hard hit.

Draconian ruling

Reading reports from external news organizations that get their news by phone from undercover contacts inside North Korea, one senses an imbalance: Articles telling of damage to the economy caused by or otherwise related to the anti-virus campaign outnumber stories about sick people.

On April 17, according to the Seoul news outlet Daily NK, the regime made an extraordinary announcement: To prevent the spread of the virus, all but essential imports would be banned. That was a toughening of already very strong curbs on trade decreed in early January, similarly intended to fight spread of the virus but according to Japan’s AsiaPress resulting among other things in a deadly shortage of medicines.

The announcement listed some items including food seasonings and electronics that it classified as “trivial” and was including in the nonessential imports ban. Prices for such items, which formerly came in from China, have skyrocketed as people have taken to hoarding them and they have become scarce in the markets, Daily NK reported this week.

The notion that imported items spread the virus got an interesting twist when the regime began holding propaganda sessions warning people that the United States and South Korea were sending items sprayed with the virus into the North, the same news organization reported. Citizens were warned not to touch the items and to report them to authorities, it said, quoting anonymous North Korean sources as usual.

External opponents of the regime often send balloons across the South-North Korean border containing propaganda leaflets and small, attractive items.

Pyongyang’s propaganda campaign sounds more like an effort to enforce political discipline, drum up zenophobic feelings and deal with lowered morale resulting from the effects of the trade cutoff than a real public health effort.

And it’s not just morale that’s affected by the trade halt. AsiaPress sources inside the country say that hunger is growing now that trade with China (both imports and exports) is down by more than 90%.

“A reporting partner explained, ‘There are more and more people who are eating only two meals a day and there are some households with no food at all,’ adding, ‘People are saying that death will come quicker from starvation than from the coronavirus,'” reports AsiaPress chief editor and founder Jiro Ishimaru.

“North Korea is now motioning for a resumption of trade, as the coronavirus situation has become relatively stable in both China and North Korea,” Ishimaru continues. “According to a trade broker in Jilin Province, however, China is not expected to allow trade to resume until the end of May due to concerns that coronavirus could spread to the Chinese border regions from North Korea.”

Meanwhile the regime has chosen the occasion of the virus threat and the campaign against it to confiscate citizens’ foreign currency. That’s according to unnamed sources in the capital, Pyongyang, and in two provinces who are quoted by AsiaPress, an organization also known as Rimjingang that gives cell phones to its sources and calls them reporting partners.

“Since the end of April, North Korean authorities have been attempting to regulate exchange rates at markets. This began with a crackdown launched by the nation’s security agencies against the use of foreign currency by ordinary citizens,” Asia Press says.

The crackdown has made it hard to use foreign currency at markets, it says, quoting a reporting partner as explaining, “If you get caught with it, the money will be confiscated no matter what. Before, under the crackdown, officials and powerful people were forced to exchange their foreign currency for North Korean won. Now, however, there is no such forgiveness. The money is confiscated and returned to the bank.”

The State Security authorities “refer to a new ‘policy’ and do not return the money.” (AsiaPress notes that, “In North Korea, the term ‘policy’ refers to direct orders from Kim Jong-un.”)

Speculating about what motivated the authorities to intervene in the foreign currency market, AsiaPress says, “As trade with China has been cut off since early January due to Covid-19 countermeasures, there have been few chances for North Koreans to spend their foreign currency. With that being the case, the authorities may be eyeing this moment as an opportunity to absorb foreign currency at an abnormally low exchange rate.”


Such heavy-handed measures are not unprecedented. Kim Jong Un’s father, the late second generation dynastic leader Kim Jong Il, revalued the currency in 2009, knocking one zero off the old sums and confiscating huge chunks of people’s savings by drastically limiting the amounts of old currency that they could exchange for new.

The scheme was partly aimed at forcing millions of people who had grown dependent on private markets to return to jobs in the comatose state economic sector. My advice at the time was: “Don’t bet on instant success because there’s not a lot to go back to.”

Indeed, the state sector still is not going much of anywhere. Meanwhile the 2009 revaluation scheme has never been forgotten or forgiven by the citizenry. At home, the Kim regime lost tons of credibiltiy – and it could well do so again this time, if what AsiaPress reports is happening remains “policy” for a while.

Markets fueled to a great extent by foreign currency – although they contradict the socialist ideology and, thus, authorities can’t point to them with pride – keep the populace from starving and are producing a middle class.

Kim praises Xi

Leave aside the question whether, due to his boundless appetite for forex to pay off his loyal minions with party favors and to buy components for his nuclear push, Kim is creating another financial disaster. We started this article by wondering how well he’s doing with the virus.

Today it turns out he has, truthfully or not, declared victory over that virus. According to state news agency KCNA he has sent Chinese leader Xi Jinping a diplomatic communication congratulating him for China’s “success” in controlling the epidemic.

Kim told Xi he was as pleased with China’s successes as his own, KCNA reported, adding that he “sent militant greetings to every member of the Communist Party of China.”

Reminds me of an old song.

Asia Times Associate Editor Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.