The ruling Kim dynasty of North Korea has for decades predicated their regime on the notion that only they can protect the Korean people from the outside world, be that capitalists, the United States or other hostile forces.
Now, according to Pyongyang, a new threat has arrived – the first publicly reported suspected case of Covid-19 within North Korea’s borders.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened an emergency meeting Saturday after it was reported that a defector who fled the country three years ago had returned to the North Korean city of Kaesong, while possibly infected with coronavirus, according to state-run newswire KCNA.
Authorities in South Korea confirmed Monday that a defector had crossed the highly militarized border into North Korea. The South Korean Health Ministry said the man was not a known coronavirus patient or a close contact of one, but local police said the man was being investigated for a sex crime.
KCNA said the defector had symptoms of Covid-19, but did not confirm if he had been tested. Close contacts of the suspected case were being examined and quarantined, but KCNA warned of a “dangerous situation” developing in Kaesong that could lead to a “deadly and destructive disaster.”
Few experts believe that North Korea, a country of nearly 25 million people which shares a border with China, could have escaped the effects of a pandemic that has infected more than 16 million people worldwide and killed nearly 650,000.
It’s possible North Korea has simply not identified existing cases due to a lack of testing, or has successfully managed to isolate small clusters of cases and is not reporting them.
But if this defector does test positive and causes a major outbreak, Covid-19 could turn into one of the biggest threats Kim has faced in his nearly nine years of rule.
What’s at stake?
The virus has proven to be one of the most difficult and deadly challenges for leaders across the planet, but for Kim it is uniquely worrying.
Experts say that North Korea’s dilapidated healthcare infrastructure is unlikely to be up to the task of treating a large number of patients sickened with a new virus that the global healthcare community does not fully understand.
That’s probably one reason why the Kim regime has been so proactive in its efforts to keep the virus at bay.
North Korea closed its borders in January after reports of Covid-19 emerged, even though such a move likely came with painful costs considering just how heavily Pyongyang relies on Beijing to keep its economy afloat.
But the country is also in a unique position to stop clusters in their tracks.
Foreign travel to North Korea was extremely limited even before the pandemic, and is now close to zero – it’s mostly only diplomats and foreign aid workers who enter the country, and they are required to undergo strict quarantines upon arrival.
Average North Koreans are not permitted to travel far from home without government approval even in normal times. Diplomatic sources based in the capital Pyongyang told CNN earlier this month that on the streets, everyone wears masks and practices some form of social distancing.
But even those measures might not have been enough.
Upon hearing of the Kaesong case, Kim responded swiftly, according to KCNA. He immediately ordered Kaesong City be sealed off from the rest of the country and each district and region within it to be isolated.
If Kim seems to grasp the reality that the virus poses a dire threat to his people, we don’t have to look to far back in history to understand why.
The famine of the 1990s was perhaps the biggest threat the Kim family has ever faced. The North Korean government claims that as many as 235,000 people died as a result of food scarcity, though experts say up to 3.5 million people may have died in what many believe was a largely man-made crisis exacerbated by flooding.
During the crisis, defectors poured out of the country, with horrific stories that shocked the international community. As people struggled to eat, the medical infrastructure struggled to cope.
Those who fled spoke of amputations done without anesthesia or doctors selling medicine to buy food to survive. One pediatrician quit because “she couldn’t bear looking into the eyes of starving children any longer,” Barbara Demick recounts in her award-winning book on North Korean defectors, “Nothing to Envy.”
That may have been two decades ago, but the “Arduous March,” as it was referred to by Pyongyang’s propagandists, is within living memory and a defining piece of history for many North Koreans.
A second dire health crisis in a single generation would be a devastating blow to the Kim family mandate, which for decades has been tied to an almost divine right to rule.
Kim Jong Un is the third member of his family to rule North Korea, and propagandists have long built up the family as protectors and saviors of the Korean people. But that same deft ability with propaganda gives the regime a possible advantage in the event of an outbreak.
North Koreans who flee the country and resettle in the South Korea often have trouble adjusting to life there. They regularly face discrimination and often have difficulty finding employment in a cutthroat, capitalist society that is alien to them. Many suffer from unresolved past traumas. Some just miss their families. All of this can lead to despair and depression – and a desire to go home.
Those that do return to the North are sometimes used as propaganda tools to convince North Koreans that their socialist system is superior to the capitalist South, and that those who have fled will risk life and limb to return.
Defectors that flee North Korea and stay in the South are often referred to as “human scum” and enemies of the state. If a defector was to bring the virus into the city of Kaesong, the Kim regime would be able to propagate a similar, if incorrect, argument to average North Koreans: the Kim regime has been able to protect its people from the virus, but the South Korean capitalists have not been able to protect theirs.
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Paula Hancocks contributed reporting