North Korea has long been one of the most isolated countries in the world, but its isolation became even more extreme amid the pandemic. The country has cut off its few ties and prolonged diplomatic activities with the outside world due to its border shutdown after the outbreak of COVID-19.
In the name of combating the pandemic, Pyongyang has essentially halted all foreign interactions, including state visits, exchanges of delegations, international cooperation, and humanitarian aid. No Western foreign diplomats and humanitarian workers are left in the country, as the last remaining two U.N. staff left the North in March 2021, and the Romanian Embassy, the last European diplomatic presence, also decided to close down in October of that year. Currently, a few foreign diplomats from Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Syria, and Egypt are still remaining in North Korea as points of contact.
As such, North Korea’s policy of self-isolation has turned the country into a hermit kingdom again, while the rest of the world is returning to the pre-COVID era.
With the current extreme isolation, North Korea has come up short again with regard to having enough food to feed its people during the pandemic. This week, North Korea announced it would hold another plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in late February, just two months after the previous meeting, held in late December, to discuss urgent issues related to food production. This suggests North Korea is seriously worried about a food crisis in the near future. Despite its lack of agricultural production, North Korea has refused to receive large-scale humanitarian aid from the international community due to a strict ban on accepting any support from South Korea and the United States.
Arguably, the current situation in North Korea can be compared with the serious famine in the country in the 1990s. Like today, albeit for different reasons, in the 1990s North Korea was totally isolated from the outside world. Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had collapsed, West and East Germany were reunited, and South Korea had established diplomatic relations with Russia and China.
In the face of the negative external circumstances, North Korea attempted to solve all problems based on the juche ideology of self-sufficiency, like Kim Jong Un’s current self-reliance policy with the North’s border closure. However, eventually, the mixture of unexpected external events and self-imposed isolation pushed the country to face a serious famine, known as the “Arduous March,” in the mid-1990s, after widespread flooding that destroyed much of the nation’s rice crop in August 1995.
This could also apply to the situation in North Korea today. Notably, North Korea is affected by floods and typhoons almost every year. Although North Korea has improved its skillset in disaster management, more North Koreans are vulnerable to natural disasters, due to the dire shortage of food and the withdrawal of international assistance during the pandemic.
Overwhelming Dependence on China
While the North’s paranoia over COVID-19 has cut it off from the outside world, North Korea has become extremely dependent on just one sponsor, China, which provides most of its food and energy. China has long been the biggest aid provider as Beijing’s greatest concern is the collapse of the North Korean regime, which would be a direct threat to stability along China’s border.
Despite its willingness to stabilize its neighbor, Beijing dislikes Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon development. From China’s perspective, North Korea’s persistent nuclear test threat and numerous missile tests have accelerated military tensions on the Korean Peninsula with South Korea and the United States. That is not in the best interests of Beijing.
For nearly a year now there have been predictions of another nuclear test by the North, but nothing has happened yet. One reasonable argument is that Beijing’s pressure has made Pyongyang hesitate or delay the prepared test, even if China may not necessarily influence North Korea’s final decision.
In late September 2022, China reached an agreement with North Korea to resume railway freight between the two countries, mostly medicines, foods, and fertilizers. However, the amount is still far from the pre-pandemic level as trade is limited to one single railway route between Dandong and Sinuiju. Given this situation, North Korea desperately wants to resume large-scale cross-border trade with China to recover its economy more quickly, but Beijing doesn’t seem to be in the same position. Beijing might have decided to exercise its economic leverage over Pyongyang, at a time when North Korea has few other options and is relaying on China’s relief supplies for survival.
As a result, Pyongyang currently faces a catch-22 situation, as China’s support is still essential for the regime’s durability, but North Korea has always feared becoming overly dependent on Beijing.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pyongyang has been strengthening its ties with Moscow by supporting Vladimir Putin’s position on the war. Pyongyang might have been hoping not only to receive food and energy aid from Russia but also to use Moscow to balance Beijing’s overwhelming influence in the country. However, the volume of Russian aid seems to be much smaller than the Chinese supplies, and the outcome of the war remains highly uncertain. The worst scenario for Pyongyang will be Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, making North Korea solely reliant on China again.
North Korea should urgently break out of its extreme economic isolation to avoid a serious humanitarian crisis. To do so, Pyongyang must diversify its diplomatic ties beyond the neighboring diplomacy with China and Russia. Due to the border closure, North Korea could not reach out to the countries with which it has diplomatic relations, mostly in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In this regard, the most urgent issue is to reopen North Korea’s borders to reconnect with the outside world, so that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can reshuffle its diplomats currently stationed in 53 countries (as of 2021). These diplomats can play an active role in receiving foreign aid.
According to the financial tracking service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), North Korea received only about $2.3 million in humanitarian aid from international organizations and other agencies in 2022. That represents a sharp decrease since 2020 due to the North’s border closures. The most assistance came from Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway in 2022. For example, Switzerland provided $1.6 million for North Korea, accounting for some 70 percent of the total funding, while Sweden and Finland offered some $510,000 and $200,000 respectively through the Swedish and Norwegian Red Cross.
Against this backdrop, if its border reopens, Pyongyang will likely go on a diplomatic charm offensive toward its three top donor countries in Europe to get additional donations. Furthermore, Pyongyang is interested in capacity building programs, potentially provided by those three countries, wherein North Korean government officials and researchers can learn advanced knowledge, information, and technologies in managing the issues of environment, energy and forestry.
Meanwhile, North Korea would also be interested in contacting politically impartial countries in Asia, which could be potential food providers to North Korea. Last summer, Pyongyang asked India for rice donations after Kim Jong Un raised the alarm about his country’s possible food crisis. Vietnam could be another candidate for North Korea to approach for food aid. When Kim Jong Un met U.S. President Donald Trump for the Hanoi summit in 2019, he was also there to revive North Korea-Vietnam ties.
As such, the North Korean regime will turn an eye to Europe and Asia again, as potential economic and food donors to the country. In doing so, Pyongyang’s effort in diversifying its ties will contribute to decreasing its overdependence on Beijing, although China will still most likely remain North Korea’s major sponsor in the future.