By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein*
(FPRI) — The North Korean government response to the coronavirus has been extreme, but prudent and reasonable in context. It has closed the border to China almost entirely to both goods and people though surely some transports are still getting through. No travel is allowed to or from China although there must be exceptions to this rule as well. The state (under the banner of the Red Cross, whose branch in North Korea operates as a government entity) has dispatched people around the country to inform people about the virus. No reports have been confirmed at this time of writing, but exile journalists based in South Korea have reported several deaths from the virus from North Korea. Its actions have been blunt and all-encompassing, mainly because the state lacks the necessary capacity to act differently. North Korea doesn’t have the sort of equipment required to monitor people coming from China or to test people at the pace required.
The border closure is causing drastic difficulties for the economy, with crucial consumer goods imports from China not coming through. Make no mistake: the government is very serious about the closure and is taking measures that carry great losses even in the immediate term (though of course, the top echelons of the regime will always have ways of acquiring the goods they desire). Kim Jong-un has strengthened border controls to prevent defections throughout his tenure, but under the current closure, the military is cracking down hard even on the sort of smuggling that it would ordinarily turn a blind eye towards, often as a result of the highly institutionalized corruption that pervades throughout the North Korean economy.
The government’s response says several things about its system. A state only takes measures as blunt as closing the border to a country who it strongly depends on for trade unless it really has no other choice. To be sure, several other countries have taken measures to restrict travel severely, particularly to and from China. But the opportunity cost for North Korea is different, given that North Korea depends on China for virtually all of its external trade as of now.
North Korea’s health care system is dismal. Although the system has a well-organized infrastructure in theory, many North Koreans likely cannot even remember a time when patients could go to a clinic and receive the necessary treatments and medicines without paying hefty fees (or bribes) to the medical staff—if such clinics are even available within reasonable distance. Given the dismal state of health care in the country, it’s virtually impossible to imagine that the state could dispatch medical staff to remote areas of the country with sufficient equipment to test for the virus.
Moreover, a press statement by the International Red Cross said that volunteers from the organization (presumably from its North Korean branch) had been dispatched “on bikes to remote areas to share coronavirus awareness messages.” Given the situation, this sounds like a very wise initiative. But most pictures from inside the country that people see through international media depict the capital city Pyongyang, and it is worth remembering that there are regions of the country so cut off from transportation and communications infrastructure that people physically have to go there on bicycles to convey information about the virus.
We still know relatively little about the internal measures to counter the virus, but according to reports from within North Korea, the government banned internal travel between provinces in addition to the travel ban on the Chinese border. It will be interesting to see how well authorities are able to keep this ban up, if at all. Theoretically, at least until the famine of the 1990s and early 2000s, all North Koreans needed permits to cross provincial borders. That sort of control largely broke down with the famine, and it is questionable whether the government has the necessary capacity to control domestic travel today to this extent. As I have written elsewhere, if inter-provincial trade really was effectively and fully banned, North Korea’s domestic economy would suffer immensely. It is also possible that the regime is taking such strong, pre-emptive measures to make sure it doesn’t need to accept the help offered by the United States and others to counter a possible outbreak. The government would likely be suspicious and concerned if international health workers were to roam around the country during a time of continued tensions with the United States, but with a serious outbreak, it would have little choice.
The North Korean government would not have taken these measures unless it really saw that it had no other choice. During the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, North Korea banned travel from certain areas of the world where the infection had spread, but never closed the border entirely. The losses in revenue from foregone trade and above all, lost tourism from China, are likely immense. But with a system so lacking in resources, blunt measures are the only ones the government can take.
*About the author: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an Associate Scholar and 2019 Templeton Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula and East Asian region.
Source: This article was published by FPRI