By Donald Kirk
In a time of crisis, near-panic, over a disease to which the best medical minds have yet to find a sure cure, total cooperation is essential. The World Health Organization, scientists around the world, anyone who knows anything is duty-bound to try and help.
Which brings us to North Korea.
If there’s one country from which absolutely no help is forthcoming, it’s the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sure, we get reminders daily of what the North Koreans are doing to try to contain the coronavirus, COVID-19. We heard weeks ago they had closed the border to China. We know they banned foreign diplomats and NGO people from going shopping. Most recently, they placed all 380 foreign residents under quarantine as if they were some kind of plague from outer space.
What the North Koreans haven’t done is cooperate with anyone on exactly what’s going on in their own country, how many are sick and how many have died. Oh, that’s right, they’ve said more than once that no one has died or is at all ill. That boast has as much credibility as those signs you see looking from China across the Tumen River border into the bleak North Korean landscape proclaiming North Korea a “worker’s paradise” whose people have “nothing to envy” ― the title of Barbara Demick’s book.
It’s interesting North Korea places a complete clamp on what’s happening up there. They are not only refusing to provide the slightest detail on the pain and suffering caused their people by COVID-19, they’re also not sharing medical or scientific information. They’re making no attempt at comparing notes with the South Koreans or Chinese or Russians, all of them neighbors, with all of whom they should be cooperating closely even if they choose to have nothing to do with the Americans or anyone else.
While ordering quarantines, closing their borders to China, Russia too, all to keep contaminated people from getting in, they’re treating the South Koreans, fellow Koreans, as if they too were foreigners not to be trusted. South Korea, unlike North Korea, has been releasing information on how many are ill, where they got the bug, their condition. We learn where individuals died, their ages, medical background, all that.
North Koreans are also suffering. It’s for that reason North Korea’s media has put out so many rules and warnings. They have to keep the disease from overwhelming the country, the ruling party, the armed forces, the structure of governing, ensuring security and buttressing a system that’s been in place since the Soviet Union installed Kim Il-sung after the World War II.
Most importantly, the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un, has to hide the facts to ensure his power, to remain omnipotent before his people.
For two reasons, however, North Korean state broadcasts do quote reports on cases in China and South Korea. The first is the North Koreans can claim a certain superiority for having contained the illness at home while others have failed. Second, they want people to know, if they don’t do as told, they too may wind up suffering like their South Korean brethren and Chinese neighbors.
While trying to wipe out the disease, North Korea has been turning down offers of emergency aid though the United Nations grants relief from sanctions for medicine. The North has accepted aid before so why not now? Are they too proud to acknowledge the need? Do they have enough medicine? Are hospitals and clinics, bereft of basic equipment, able to deal with the disease?
Here’s a better explanation. Foreign aid teams would become aware of cases elsewhere. They would see the numbers who’ve died, who’ve survived, who remain critical. They would reveal what this disease is doing to North Koreans.
The last thing Kim wants is for the world, including his own people, to find out the extent of the suffering even if it means depriving aid to impoverished masses. He knows he would be in trouble once the inability of his regime to fight the illness effectively was revealed. At the least he would lose respect. That’s a risk he cannot afford.
The elite of the capital, Kim and his family and top aides and Workers’ Party cadre, presumably have medicine for themselves. Better to let poor people suffer, Kim figures, than to jeopardize my rule just to save a few lives.
Donald Kirk has been covering the confrontation of forces on the Korean peninsula and throughout the region for decades.