It is unusual to see North Korea reacting to foreign media reports based on rumors or information from unnamed sources, but apparently some cannot be ignored.
Echo DPRK, a YouTube channel that is believed to be managed by North Korea, recently posted a video to dismiss some news reports that the North is witnessing a panic buying spree amid soaring prices.
In a video clip titled “True or False (Panic buying),” the channel shows a fully-stocked Daesong Department Store, in the capital of Pyongyang. It also interviewed a staff member there who dismissed the rumor about panic buying and the price hikes.
The North’s move came after a Seoul-based online publication, Daily NK, reported that the country was witnessing panic buying after the authorities decided to limit imports of some goods amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the decision was made on April 17, the country also began to see a price hike in some goods, especially imported food products, the paper added.
NK News, a news service that specializes in the North, also published a report carrying the same information.
Citing multiple informed sources, the news service said panic buying sprees began to take place in some of Pyongyang’s stores and groceries since April 20, adding that it was unclear what caused the sudden surge in demand.
Separately, Radio Free Asia reported that the prices of food staples in North Korea were rising sharply because of panic buying, while Washington Post also reported last week that store shelves in Pyongyang were being cleaned out of everything from liquor to laundry detergent, canned fish to cigarettes in recent days.
Global media outlets have reported much worse, sometimes even sensational things, about North Korea, but as pointed out above, the country rarely reacted. What is different this time?
Food and supply shortages are common in North Korea, and the global outbreak of COVID-19 has made the problem worse. To fight the pandemic, North Korea closed the border, limited imports, and cracked down on smuggling activities. Multiple news reports have suggested that its overseas restaurants and foreign workers were affected as well.
On the top of the virus outbreak and long-lasting sanctions, rumors about the ill health or even death of leader Kim Jong Un have been widely circulating as well.
“North Korea is currently struggling to figure out how to continue the government and who is going to lead it,” said Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector-turned-South Korean politician during an interview with a local press.
Some recent rumors about a visit from Chinese delegates to the North or sightings of Kim’s private yacht are the North’s attempt to turn attention away from Kim, he added.
Given the current situation, Pyongyang’s biggest concern could be how to remain in control and prevent possible internal rumblings. This might be why North Korea is reacting to news reports that could undermine its authority, such as panic buying rumors.
Along the same lines, North Korea has recently increased its propaganda efforts by encouraging patriotism and unity.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper said on April 29, for instance, that all members and workers should have absolute loyalty to the party, embody fervent patriotism and responsibility, and carry out their duty. The paper also introduced “excellent examples” of propaganda works and public lectures conducted in rural areas.
In addition, the North is showing a tendency to shift the responsibility for economic difficulties caused by the COVID-19 crisis to external factors.
The country recently held public lectures claiming that South Korea and the United States are intentionally spreading COVID-19 in the North, indicating that the authorities are concerned about public sentiment, Daily NK reported.