For more than two years, isolated North Korea claimed success in keeping out Covid and even rebuffed multiple offers of vaccines, calling them unnecessary. Last month, that changed. In a series of urgent dispatches, North Korea’s state media announced that an unspecified fever was spreading “explosively.” The nation went into lockdown. More than four million cases have been reported, with dozens of deaths. It’s a frightening prospect for an unvaccinated, undernourished nation of 25 million people. But bad news does not escape North Korea without a reason. Finally acknowledging a viral outbreak may be part of a strategy by its leader, Kim Jong-un, to re-engage with the outside world. The world should be ready to engage, too.
Since the collapse of his nuclear negotiations with President Donald Trump in 2019, followed soon by Covid’s global spread, Kim has retreated into an isolation that is deep even by North Korea’s hermetic standards. This has been devastating to its people. It’s also a threat to peace and security beyond the Korean Peninsula: He has spent the intervening time shoring up his power — and expanding his nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is now believed to possess dozens of nuclear devices and appears poised to carry out a seventh nuclear test. It has test-launched dozens of missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions this year alone — including, recently, a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile designed to reach the United States.
The saber rattling is nothing new. North Korea’s weapons program has vexed four of President Biden’s predecessors, each of whom wielded combinations of various incentives and sanctions, ultimately failing to halt the production of nuclear warheads and missiles.
So why admit a Covid outbreak now? Just as Kim is sending a message with his missile launches, he’s sending another by admitting the outbreak. First of all, don’t believe for a second that Covid only just appeared in North Korea. The virus was circulating in China — which had extensive cross-border trade with North Korea and regular flights between Beijing and Pyongyang — for weeks before North Korea sealed its borders in late January 2020.
Neither should we put too much stock in North Korea’s more recent claims of success in battling the outbreak. Covid is likely “getting worse, not better,” Michael Ryan, the emergencies director for the World Health Organization, said last week. The W.H.O. has expressed concern about an unchecked spread among unvaccinated North Koreans. It could be that cases were rising so rapidly in the capital, Pyongyang, that the outbreak had to be acknowledged. But there is likely also an element of political timing involved in announcing the outbreak just before a recent trip by Biden to South Korea and Japan.
Kim may be pursuing a dual-track strategy. The missile launches maintain tension with the United States and South Korea — which helps him to justify building up his nuclear arsenal, putting him in a stronger position for any future standoffs or negotiations.
And the Covid confession serves as a face-saving way to secure humanitarian help and other goods from Beijing — which is always concerned about its neighbour devolving into crisis — after Kim rejected China’s previous offers of vaccines. Just days after announcing the outbreak, North Korea reportedly sent three cargo planes to Shenyang, China, to pick up emergency supplies. More arrived recently by rail. It may be receiving Chinese vaccines already.