North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks like he’s in big trouble. His country has announced an “explosive” outbreak of Covid-19, reporting more than 2 million cases of what it refers to as “fever” in little more than a week since its first reported case.
In a largely undeveloped and famously isolated country of 25 million, where the vast majority of people are thought to be unvaccinated, it has the potential to be a humanitarian disaster on the sort of scale that would threaten the grip on power of just about any government in the world.
But Pyongyang isn’t like any other government. In fact, some experts say that rather than weaken Kim the outbreak could make him more powerful – by giving him an excuse to tighten his grip.
Kim has at his disposal an extensive propaganda machine and an ability to block outside information that could help him shape the narrative of this crisis in his favor – much as his predecessors did with the 1990s famine thought to have starved hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to death. Back then, Pyongyang had framed its problems as an “Arduous March” – and blamed them partly on flooding and partly on American sanctions.
Kim is already showing signs of trying to stage manage this latest crisis. Even before the outbreak was announced, Kim had been warning his officials to prepare for “another, more difficult Arduous March.” That appeared to be a reference to severe food shortages that are once again facing the country and have likely been made worse by the very border lockdowns Kim introduced to keep the virus out.
Analysts are also suspicious about the timing of Pyongyang’s acknowledgment of the Covid outbreak. Its previous insistence that it had been Covid-free had been a source of widespread skepticism and some suggest its sudden openness about its problems is timed deliberately to coincide with a visit to the region by President Joe Biden, who was due to arrive in South Korea on Thursday evening local time.
“The fact that Kim Jong Un has decided to come out and publicly announce this health crisis is quite telling,” said Lina Yoon, a senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch. “(It) may have a political element, obviously.”
This may not be the only way Kim has of ensuring Pyongyang is top of the agenda when the President meets the South’s new leader Yoon Suk Yeol.
Intelligence from Washington suggests Kim is planning either a nuclear test or a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile to coincide with the visit – an assessment shared by South Korea, which has prepared plans to respond to potential “provocations” from Pyongyang. That would fit Kim’s recent behavior. According to Seoul, on the same day North Korea announced its outbreak, it fired three short-range ballistic missiles into waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
The lingering unknown is this: will Kim’s problems with Covid distract him from such a show of power, or will it make him more belligerent?
“Gravest state of emergency”
While Pyongyang may be seeking attention, few would suggest it is exaggerating its outbreak. Indeed, until recently its lack of officially reported cases had prompted widespread skepticism.
Its official death toll as of Thursday was 62 deaths, but experts say the real figure could be far higher and is likely to balloon.
State media has reported that samples from some patients showed them to be carrying the Omicron variant, the high transmissibility of which could prove devastating in a population that is not only largely unvaccinated but – if official accounts are to be believed – has no natural immunity through prior infections.
North Korea is not known to have imported any coronavirus vaccines – despite being eligible for the global Covid-19 vaccine sharing program, Covax. Last year, it publicly rejected an offer of nearly three million doses of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccines.
On Monday, three North Korean cargo planes flew to China and back, according to a South Korean government official with knowledge of the matter. It’s unknown what the planes were carrying, but the rare trip came after China pledged to help North Korea with its Covid outbreak.
“There is no evidence to show that North Korea has access to enough vaccines to protect its population from Covid-19,” said Amnesty International’s East Asia researcher Boram Jang.
“With the first official news of a Covid-19 outbreak in the country, continuing on this path could cost many lives and would be an unconscionable dereliction of upholding the right to health.”
In response, Kim has appeared unusually willing to admit the problems facing his country, declaring the “gravest state of emergency” and ordering all provinces and cities into lockdown.
But whether that will stoke popular anger against him seems unlikely to many experts given Kim’s ability to manipulate the state’s considerable propaganda machinery – as long as he can prevent the crisis from directly affecting the country’s ruling elites.
“If senior elites start dying en masse – there are quite a lot of them, and we don’t know if they are vaccinated – if many of them die of it, there may be questions asked about why North Korea didn’t vaccinate earlier,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of the Seoul-based NK News outlet.
Since the outbreak was announced, alongside videos telling people what to do if they exhibit Covid symptoms, state-run TV has devoted large amounts of time to clips of Kim inspecting epidemic command centers and pharmacies – perhaps designed to show he is in control of the situation.
A test of health care, and Kim’s leadership
Still, Yoon at Human Rights Watch said the very fact Pyongyang was publicly acknowledging the crisis suggested it had “very serious concerns” about the outbreak and the potential for it to spread.
“(North Korea) has an unvaccinated population and chronic malnourishment, and they have no medicines for treating basic symptoms of Covid-19,” Yoon said. “North Korea is much more fragile than any other country that we know.”
Yoon said North Korea now urgently required foreign aid, particularly vaccines and medicine, and even if it accepts help – offers have come in from both the South and the World Health Organization – the vaccination process is likely to be slow because the country lacks the infrastructure to store or transport vaccines.
“It is going to test his leadership, and it is going to create some urgency for very creative storytelling in the North Korean propaganda apparatus,” said O’Carroll of NK News.
A priority for Kim’s state media will be to explain why strict border lockdowns failed to keep Omicron out. O’Carroll pointed out that not only had those lockdowns failed, but they were a driving factor in the severe food shortages facing the countries as they had prevented deliveries of grain and fertilizer.
One option for Kim would be to stage a very public show of humility.
“We’ve seen Kim Jong Un crying about the nation’s sacrifices (in the past) – I think this is the type of thing he may do to try dampen outrage,” O’Carroll said.
“North Korean citizens have definitely been through a lot,” he said. “The first thing he could do is really apologize and take some blame for it.”
Meanwhile, if Kim is indeed thinking of a show of force to coincide with Biden’s visit he might do well to think about one of his last shows of power.
O’Carroll said the timing of North Korea’s outbreak suggested a massive military parade Kim held last month to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of its army had become a “super-spreader event.”
Crowds observing the parade were shown on film celebrating without face masks.
“We know that they flew in citizens from across North Korea to attend and celebrate that event,” he said. “That’s the perfect petri dish for this virus to spread, so I think that parade will go down in history as a very bad idea for North Korea.”
CNN’s Jake Kwon contributed reporting