The North Korean government also has a long tradition of simply ignoring pain at the bottom. When famine struck in the late 1990s, Cold War assistance from the Soviet Union had dried up and Chinese assistance, which today keeps North Korea afloat, had not yet kicked in. For a few years, North Korea was on its own.
The government chose to reject any external food aid with attached conditions (to ensure the army did not steal it) and ramped up military spending during this period, making the problem even worse. The result was a disaster – a mass, four-year-long starvation which killed somewhere between one and two million people.
All this portends badly for Pyongyang’s ability and interest in responding to COVID-19. North Korea lacks the infrastructure to care for the infected and the testing capacity for proper diagnosis. South Korean media reported on May 17 that North Korea sent aircraft to China to pick up medical supplies.
WILL KIM JONG UN ACCEPT FOREIGN AID?
By announcing the COVID-19 outbreak to the world, North Korea has cracked the door open to receiving aid without having to be the one to ask. But its COVID-19 response will be politically rather than medically driven.
Freshly minted South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to spare no effort to help – including vaccines, medical equipment and health personnel – but the regime will accept South Korean help only if it is proffered as a servile recognition of inter-Korean equality, not as “aid” to a failing state.
China’s Sinovac vaccine, which has shown to offer lower protection, will likely be politically preferred because of the strategic relationship with Beijing. Lockdowns will be preferred to foreign help, even though we have seen how harsh they can be in China.
Kim Jong Un, his family and regime elites will, of course, likely have access to masks and efficacious vaccines they need. What healthcare there is, is in Pyongyang or will be flown in if necessary. The pandemic will sharply illustrate the harsh inequalities of North Korean governance, just as the famine did.
If there is any hope, it is that the sheer magnitude of the disaster will move the government to act. COVID-19 has spread so rapidly that in most countries, even well-heeled political and economic elites have been infected.