Kim Jong Un has been in power for just over 10 years, and about a quarter of that time has been under a COVID-19 lockdown. The news coming out of North Korea has raised more than a few eyebrows, with claims ranging from being miraculously COVID-free for two years to blaming their eventual outbreak on “alien things.” But the actual COVID-19 response policies put into place have much deeper implications, despite how easy it is to dismiss these absurd statements.
The COVID-19 pandemic has become a new tool of control in North Korea. There are obvious risk factors that have to be managed, such as poor medical infrastructure, malnutrition, and a low-tech society that distributes information through mass gatherings. But since the initial lockdown in January 2020, the actions of the Kim regime indicate larger political objectives than mere crisis response. While most of the world remains focused on North Korea’s pursuits in weapons development, the Kim regime’s other policies are enabling the government to re-indoctrinate a nation of people who had become black-market entrepreneurs and enthusiastic consumers of illegal South Korean media. We cannot know for sure what specific ends they are pursuing, but critical clues can be found in the rhetoric and activities of the past few years.
The Kim regime’s behavior during the COVID era signals the presence of an overarching strategy, and because of that, it is possible to apply the conventional framework of “strategy” – that is, a state’s ends, ways, and means – in understanding it. The ends are the larger goals of the state, the ways are actions they take to achieve those goals, and the means are the tools used to carry out the ways.
Starting with the means, there are a wide variety of tools at Kim Jong Un’s disposal in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea’s sole ruling political party, which enables the government to reach everyone from the highest echelons of Pyongyang elite to the lowest-ranked citizens in the countryside. Specific organizations within the party keep track of citizens’ activities, such as the Party Life Guidance Section that monitors citizens’ personal lives and carries out saenghwal chonghwa (“life harmony”) self-criticism sessions. The regime also utilizes the Korean People’s Army, a million-man force used not just for military purposes, but also logistics, agriculture, and construction. Additionally, the regime controls state media, which run all radio, television, and print in the country.
These means have all been employed in the regime’s COVID-19 strategy in a variety of ways. The Kim regime implemented a complete border shutdown in January 2020, dispatching additional Korean People’s Army units to enforce the lockdown with shoot-to-kill orders for anyone seeking to cross. This isolation amplified North Korea’s information control, since it helped turn the government into the only source citizens can turn to for details on the coronavirus, its origins, and treatment. Such a monopoly over information is what enabled the state to fabricate a story about the origins of North Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak due to “alien things” close to the inter-Korean border, a narrative that opens up the opportunity to pin the outbreak on the South and absolve the North of any blame.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement refusing foreign aid, claiming that any assistance from the West is backed by ulterior motives. Meanwhile, domestic reporting proclaimed that Kim Jong Un and his top officials have been donating their personal stores of medicine for the cause. This narrative has culminated in the claim that North Korea has basically eradicated COVID-19 after record-low mortality rates. There is no outside information coming in to tell the population any different.
While government organs and military officials were initially used to carry out this response to the virus, government entities have recently seen a massive shakeup, with many elites being demoted or completely replaced by political unknowns. This kind of action brings two benefits: Kim Jong Un was able to roll out his desired policies to respond to COVID-19, probing to see which officials would put in the most work to heed his command. He then replaced any deficient personnel, getting rid of weak and potentially rebellious links and instating eager-to-please and freshly trained replacements.
The obvious question associated with all these actions then is: To what ends? While we do not have all the answers, we can find clues in the ways and means employed by the regime, as well as the policy direction set forth in the Eighth Party Congress in 2021. At that party congress, the Kim regime revealed a five-year plan for the improvement of industry, agriculture, infrastructure, and weapons development. Their response to COVID-19 is likely tied to furthering the ends of the five-year plan.
Considering all the actions the regime has taken so far, it seems likely that these new COVID policies are being used to place the regime once again at the center of the lives of North Koreans. Citizens of North Korea used to be entirely reliant on the state until the “Arduous March” famine of the mid-1990s decimated virtually all socialist programs, including the Public Distribution System that provided rations. Survivors of the famine became disillusioned with the regime and found ways to rely on themselves and their own enterprises. A network of jangmadang, free markets that run on illicit trade between North Korea and China, became the main source of income for vast swathes of the population. So much so that in 2017, a small survey of North Koreans revealed that 35 out of 36 respondents made 75 percent or more of their income from activities related to free markets, no matter how close to the border they lived.
When Kim Jong Un inherited his father’s position in 2011 he actually began loosening regulations on jangmadang activity. This led many to believe that the young Kim aimed for progressive reforms, but perhaps the jangmadang system was simply too entrenched to dismantle. COVID-19 has given Kim the opportunity to more directly address these illegal markets, and the jangmadang system is now in a chokehold. The government has cut off the outside world and all of the information and trade it previously provided. Under this new state of affairs, how are the people expected to survive?
For the Kim regime, the answer is simple: Only the state can provide for the people. The past year has seen new attempts from the government to regulate markets, including state-run food stores and increased taxes on private business owners. The Korean People’s Army has historically been involved in agricultural development, but recently has also been pushed into larger roles in economic development, like mining in South Hamgyong province and construction of housing for flood victims. All of this points to the reemergence of a state-run economy and the Public Distribution System of past eras.
Of course, North Korea watchers will wonder how weapons development factors into this strategy. After all, the Kim regime can crack down on border crossings and feed the people tales about “alien objects” without conducting missile launches or testing nuclear warheads. But one must remember that for Pyongyang, weapons are not just tools for survival, but for autonomy. As they pursue rebuilding a regime-centered society, they clearly feel compelled to maintain a significant enough deterrent to keep the United States, South Korea, and even China from interfering.
Parallels have been drawn between Kim Jong Un and his grandfather Kim Il Sung since the young leader was first introduced to the public, with comparisons made about everything from their policies to their hairstyles. But analysts still struggled to pin down Kim Jong Un as a leader, especially since most of his efforts have been devoted to maintaining systems previously established by his father and grandfather. The coronavirus has given the current Kim regime the space needed to differentiate itself from previous regimes. While we may not know exactly what kind of new identity Kim is constructing, it is clear that he intends the regime to be right at the center of North Koreans’ new normal.