There is still uncertainly about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He disappeared from his usual schedule of public events on April 12 th and did not reappear until May 1 st , when he made several well-publicized public appearances. But since then nothing. Satellite photos do not show movement of Kim’s private train, which is his usual means of transportation around the country. The train carries his limousines and a large security team. Kim appears to be working from one of his country estates, perhaps to avoid covid19, which officially does not exist in North Korea. There are also doubts about the May 1 st appearances because of the possibility that Kim has a body double that could have been used for the May 1 st photos.
After Kim’s April heart surgery China sent some medical specialists in but these were officially there to help deal with covid19. Some of the Chinese doctors sent were known to be specialists in other areas. China is not saying anything but is concerned about its unstable, unruly and often disobedient neighbor.
Other Medical Emergencies
North Korea continues to regard all information relating to covid19 as state secrets. Officially North Korea denies that covid19 is a problem in North Korea. This seems to be a practical attitude because North Korea has no real public health capability, especially the ability to monitor the overall impact of covid19. The only data collected about the disease was what impact it had on the military. That data was secret but because just about every family in the country has someone in the military, the data got leaked. By early March several thousand North Koreas soldiers appear to have been quarantined on suspicion of having the virus. These cases were almost all along the Chinese border. North Korea cannot afford to test many people for covid19. Instead the army has been ordered to isolate any soldiers who exhibit symptoms of the virus. This probably puts some non-covid19 patients in quarantine with those who do have it. Hundreds of soldiers have died recently of “fever” and families are being told the bodies were cremated. As of mid-May North Koreans continue to get covid19 but there are not enough deaths to generate a widespread panic. China has evidence of North Korean smugglers or legal Chinese visitors to North Korea coming back infected and reviving the spread of covid19 on the Chinese side of the border.
Compared to China and North Korea, South Korea has suffered a much lower death rate for people infected. China admits to a death rate of three per million people while South Korea has a well-documented rate five peer million people. China claims only 58 cases per million people while South Korea has 217 per million. During the first two months of 2020 China seemed to accurately report cases and deaths and that trend indicated an infection and death rate two or three times that of South Korea. But after February China suddenly reported a sharp decline in cases and dead. This was contradicted by many reports from people living in China. Such reporting was declared a crime and there is now much less of it.
China claims that there was no longer any covid19 danger in China. Unofficial reports getting past Chinese censors and out to the rest of the world indicate that covid19 is still infecting and killing people in China and people are resisting government offers to pretend that the covid19 epidemic has passed. Similar situation in North Korea where the government insists there have never been a covid19 epidemic just a few isolated cases that were quickly taken care of.
North Korea does have one advantage in restricting the spread of covid19; poor transportation networks. Government mismanagement of the economy have left the roads, and railroads in poor shape and it is very difficult to travel in North Korea. So covid19 could not spread much from the few active entry points on the Chinese border and a few ports. Even with that there were some large outbreaks along the Chinese border and in some military units.
By any measure South Korea has an excellent health system. As a result South Korea has been able to cope and has already contained the virus, with the number of new cases declining and fewer deaths. Despite this superior performance North Korea will not accept any South Korean help in this matter because the official word in the north is that the government kept the virus out. In most of the country that is true. But along the still porous Chinese border it is no secret with the locals that covid19 got into their part of North Korea. People living near the Chinese border increasingly ignore government propaganda and take their own precautions to avoid the disease. While the military has a rudimentary health system for their personnel and some resources to deal with covid19 infections, modern health care is only available to the most senior officials both military and non-military. These officials also have access to the outside world and what is really going on with covid19 in other countries.
North Korea is going through the covid19 epidemic the old fashioned way and that is not all that shocking in the north, where people are perplexed by all the fuss. After all the North Korean government took no precautions during SARS (2003) and MERS (2015) virus outbreaks. What is different about covid19 is that it spreads more easily and quickly. Not to the extent that it could be described as an “exterminating disease”. Only a few percent of those infected die and these are mainly the very old or already very sick. In North Korea you have to add a fourth vulnerable group; the malnourished. Food shortages have been worse the past few years and a lot more people are simply not getting enough to eat. There are also more homeless children and adults in urban areas and they tend to be in poor health.
Some of these deaths may be from other causes but even North Korea medical personnel, at least outside the capital, do not have the diagnostic equipment to confirm covid19 deaths. Officially there is a national health-care system but the reality is that only the capital and the military have any significant medical resources. The only place where you see a lot of people wearing face masks is the capital where only key security personnel and the most elite officials (the one percenters) were issued masks. Other people improvise.
North Korea has suppressed any official, or unofficial, news of what is really happening. But North Koreans still have their cell phones, although they have to use carefully selected code words to pass on covid19 related news. Information brokers on the Chinese side of the border are still getting plenty of business even though much less information is getting out since the government began restricting movement within North Korea and across the border in January. On February 20 all schools (except for a few elite science programs) were shut down for a month. Long distance travel by train, plane, automobile or boat was restricted or banned.
The border ban includes North Koreans arrested in China for being there illegally. It is also illegal to leave North Korea without permission and these prisoners are usually transferred back to North Korea for punishment. That has been halted until the covid19 danger has passed. The only legal crossings from North Korea are foreign diplomats being expelled on suspicion of having covid19. The military has banned leave for soldiers and restricted who can leave the base. New recruits are being turned down if they have any indications of sickness, especially lung related. Lacking the resources to test for covid19 military doctors are using cruder method that see more conscripts having their induction delayed for months or longer. The military only takes in new recruits twice a year but one of those induction periods occurs in mid-January and lasts about a month. The military also discharges soldiers who have completed their enlistments (of up to ten years) at the same time. These discharges have been delayed as well, for a month or more. Same deal for officers retiring or completing their mandatory active service before going into the reserves.
In early February North Korea halted all Chinese tourism, despite the fact that this is a major source of foreign currency and curbed normal (business and government) travel to China. North Korea is also very poor and in no condition to deal with an outbreak of the new virus. Yet North Korea still has a lot of smugglers operating along the Chinese border and in some coastal areas.
The border with China has been closed to major traffic since January 30th and that means bulk imports of food and fuel are not arriving. These are legal imports that China is the major supplier of. North Korea cannot afford to maintain much in the way of food or fuel reserves and what reserves do exist are for the military, in case there is a war or other national emergency. These supplies may already have been released to provincial security forces (soldiers and police) but they won’t last long if the Chines border remains closed.
May 18, 2020: While the stricter 2017 economic sanctions have cut most North Korean foreign trade, the cuts in China trade have been somewhat less. China has always been North Korea’s largest trading partner and before the 2917 sanctions China accounted for over 80 percent of North Korean foreign trade. Now it is 95 percent. Even with that the sanctions still hurt. Trade with China was up 15 percent in 2019 to $2.84 billion after hitting an all time low in 2018. Most (over 91 percent) of 2019 trade was exports to China. That China trade was down a third during the first two months of 2020, compared to 2019, because of a border shut down to deal with covid19.
A major reason why the 2017 sanctions were so effective was because China agreed to enforce them. In the past China tolerated a lot of smuggling and illegal trade with North Korea. Not so much after 2017. China wants North Korea to concentrate more on economic reform and less on ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. One of the legal imports from China is food and North Korea will need a lot of it in 2020 because problems (natural and manmade) with agriculture in the last year resulted in North Korea producing 16 percent less food than it needs to feed its population. Spending remains high for missile and nuclear weapons and this has produced a severe shortage of foreign currency for essential imports, like food. In response to this North Korea has resumed offering government bonds, which can only be purchased using foreign currency. The government wants its legal entrepreneurs (the donju) to buy these bombs.
May 15, 2020: South Korea has handled its covid19 economic crises far better than the north has. It appears that the South Korean GDP will shrink less than two percent in 2020 and robust normal growth in 2021. North Korean economic problems continued to grow with covid19 adding to the sanctions related problems.
May 14, 2020: Satellite photos show a new North Korean ballistic missile research and production facility being completed outside the capital. North Korea has not halted work on new missiles and several of the 31 missile firings since 2019 involved very long range missiles.
North Korea appears determined to perfect an ICBM (missile that can reach the United States) as well as a ballistic missile carrying submarine. These missile projects consume resources desperately needed for infrastructure maintenance and repair. It is considered treason to criticize the weapons programs or the military. Younger North Koreans are much less accepting of this than their elders.
May 13, 2020: in North Korea the head of military intelligence (the GBR or General Reconnaissance Bureau) has been unexpectedly replaced. Also replaced was the army general commanding Kim Jong Uns personal bodyguards since 2010, two years before Kim Jong Un took power. The GBR is responsible for selecting, training and sending agents into other countries for special missions. For example, back in 2013 GBR selected several hundred young soldiers (late teens to early 20s) and trained them to speak better Chinese and how to operate under cover. This was in order to seek out defectors in China, kidnap them and return them to North Korea where they go straight to a labor camp, possibly for life. This was meant to make North Koreans less willing to flee the country. The GBR teams were ordered to concentrate on those defectors attempting to get to South Korea via South Korean embassies in places like Thailand. China tolerated the GBR agents as long as they did not carry weapons or create much fuss. In return the Chinese expects to receive any information about illegal activity inside China that the GBR teams might run across. GBR has also trained and displaced agents to South Korea, Japan and even the United States and Western Europe.
May 12, 2020: China is again imposing covid19 restrictions in cities near the North Korean border. Some of the new cases were people who had recently been in North Korea legally or illegally. Because many Chinese and North Korean smugglers regularly cross the border secretly it has been impossible to completely close the North Korean border. China and North Korea have similar problems along their Russian borders. Covid19 is still very active in Russia.
May 9, 2020: North Korea ordered a crackdown on corruption in the military. This came after a series of audits were conducted and found many military food and fuel reserve stockpiles had been plundered. Worse, some commanders were stealing food supplies meant for their own troops. The stolen items were sold in the legal markets using falsified documents to disguise their source. There will be arrests and several guilty (or just accused) officers will be executed. That will reduce the thefts for a while but after a year or less the corrupt practices will return. Some of the thefts are not discovered because those involved were able to alter enough documents to prevent auditors from finding anything missing. These thefts have been going on for over a decade and despite regular “audits and executions” the plundering of military supplies continues. In addition to the thefts there is the widespread practice of troops, or their families, paying commanders bribes to get a soldier into a better job or a non-military job.
At the same time the government is also cracking down on people assigned to work for state owned operations, including the military, actually spending most of their time working in free market enterprises and earning a lot more money. These entrepreneurs pay bribes to the government managers they are supposed to be working for and those managers also steal the small salary the missing worker is still being paid. This theft also includes military personnel. Government run operations are much less efficient than those managed by donju (entrepreneurs). These legal free markets and other enterprises began to appear over a decade ago because the government was desperate to improve economic productivity. As more and more North Koreans became donju and began to replace less efficient government run operations, national leaders feared they were losing control of the economy. Now donju deemed guilty are being fined or imprisoned. Those who appear to be leaders of the growing number of “donju associations” are being executed. North Korean leaders won’t admit the truth that this sort of thing was inevitable, but they do believe the only solution is nuclear weapons that will enable North Korea to extort cash and goods from South Korea, Japan and the Americans. That plan also has several flaws, some of them fatal for the Kim dynasty. Any senior officials who point out these flaws risks demotion or execution. In North Korea the truth can get you killed.
While waiting for the nuclear salvation the government is developing new ways to finance itself. This involves cracking down on foreign currencies (mainly dollars and Chinese yuan) taking over the economy. The latest scam involves issuing government bonds and pressuring cash rich donju and government operations to buy them. The bonds are seen as another government “tax” because few of the targeted buyers expect that government to ever redeem (buy back) the bonds. Discussing this publically can get you executed, as the government has already demonstrated when the leader of a donju association was found to be trying to organize a boycott of the bonds. Managers of state owned factories have been ordered to come up with local solutions to raw materials and investment capital shortages. Many, if not most, of the competent managers have left to become donju. Those managers now running the state owned enterprises are notable for their inability to innovate and do what the government is now demanding.
May 8, 2020: North Korea has resumed legal raw materials exports to China. These exports had been halted earlier in the year to reduce the spread of covid19. At the same time government approved smuggling of these raw materials continued, as did the illegal imports.
May 3, 2020: On the DMZ North Korea soldiers fired on a South Korean guard post. There were no injuries from the four 14.5mm bullets accidently fired from an anti-aircraft gun. South Korean machine-guns fired about 30 rounds before all firing stopped. South Korea protested and North Korea later revealed that the shooting was an accident by inexperienced troops. North Korea did not apologize but did express regret about the poor discipline of their troops. On the South Korean side there was concern because attempts to use a remotely controlled 12.7mm machine-gun failed because of a “system problem.”
May 1, 2020: Supreme leader King Jong Un resumed making public appearances after last seen in public on April 11th absence. A lot of North Koreans believed their troublesome leader was dead. This was encouraged by South Korean news videos that had been smuggled into North Korea and rapidly passed around. Now the speculation in the north is about what health problems the obviously overweight supreme leader is suffering from. On April 12 Kim was seen entering a hospital noted for performing heart surgery. He was believed to have had a relatively simple procedure and then spent the next two weeks recuperating at one of his country estates, where satellite photos spotted his personal railroad cars.
Apparently Kim, or one of senior officials, noted the role illegal South Korean videos played in spreading embarrassing news or speculation on what was going on with leader Kim. The result was another crackdown on the possession and distribution of such videos by high school and college students with cell phones. The new crackdown involves random inspection of cell phones carried by students. This is conducted in areas where the students congregates outside of school.
April 30, 2020: In southeast North Korea (Kangwon Province) there has been another outbreak of African Swine Fever, which is highly contagious for pigs and other farm animals. Kangwon province border the DMZ and South Korea, where Swine Fever broke out in mid-2019 and apparently infected wild pigs that inhabit the five kilometers wide DMZ and eventually spread it to animals in North Korea. So far some 6.000 pigs, ducks, geese, goats and sheep have died and the government is trying to isolate the outbreak before it spreads further. These measures often fail because the farmers are so poor and desperate that sick animals are not destroyed (burned) but butchered and the meat sold in local markets or consumed by the farmer’s family and friends. As a result the livestock disease had spread by mid-May to at least two other provinces. This was in spite of growing government efforts to contain the problem as happens in South Korea and China.
China is a source of similar animal killing disease. In 2019 farmers on the Chinese border suffered huge livestock losses from an outbreak of swine flu. Like human flu, this disease is easily spread (via the atmosphere) from pig to pig and although some pigs might survive they must be destroyed (killed and buried) to prevent the spread of the disease. The same tactics are used to halt the spread of Swine Fever. It is difficult to get farmers to cooperate because pork is a major source of meat in North Korea and desperate farmers will butcher and eat or sell the meant of diseased pigs and not kill and bury swine that survive. That means the epidemic keeps spreading. Earlier in 2019 North Korean farmers suffered heavy losses from another outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. This one came in via China, which can afford to cope with these outbreaks. North Korea cannot, especially not just now. Worse, the first cases, which were near the Chinese border, where the virus can get across the rural border areas because it is airborne. Farmers tried to hide the flu by insisting that the cattle deaths were from malnutrition. Thus this early misdiagnosis led to the rapid spread of hoof and mouth. Most (about 80 percent) of North Korean farmers use cattle for plowing and, very rarely as a source of milk and meat (which fetches a high price on the markets) but cattle that die from hoof and mouth must be buried or burned for the dead animal harbors the virus. Killing cattle without government permission is a capital crime in North Korea thus an uncontrolled hoof and mouth outbreak is a potential disaster. Outbreaks of these farm animal diseases are common throughout the region but North Korea suffers the most because they lack the resources to quickly contain the diseases. All their neighbors can deal with the problem and control their losses. North Korea cannot afford the losses and these diseases are more a disaster than just a nuisance in neighboring nations.
April 26, 2020: North Korea has ordered North Koreans working in China illegally to remain there until the end of the year and to increase the portion of their pay they hand over to the North Korea government as a “loyalty tax.” In January the U.S. provided evidence that North Korea had failed to comply with the December 22 deadline to bring all foreign workers home. This was mainly about 50,000 North Korean workers in China and 30,000 in Russia who were supposed to be back in North Korea by December 22nd, as per the UN sanctions. Russia had sent home all the North Korean workers officially still in Far East Russia, where there is a labor shortage and cheap North Korean workers have been popular. Many of the departing North Koreas said they expected to return soon and they did with tourist or other deceptive visas. Using various visa and other deceptions China and Russian managed to keep or replace (with other North Koreans) all their North Korean workers. The UN economic sanctions on North Korea called for all North Korean workers employed in other countries (mainly China and Russia) to be sent home by late December. That did not happen in China, which has been allowing more North Korean workers to enter and work, many with no visa at all. Half of the workers’ pay goes to the North Korean government as “tax” but the North Korean workers are still making more than they could in North Korea and most of that pay supports family back in North Korea while the exported workers have more food and heat than they would back home. China and Russia are officially supporting the sanctions but are unofficially tolerating all manner of smuggling and sanctions evasion. The end result is that China and Russia cooperated with North Korea to ignore these economic sanctions. North Korea earns about $500 million year via this exported labor. North Korea has recently sent more security personnel to China to ensure that the North Korean workers do not try to escape from China and North Korean control. The U.S. subsequently put individual sanctions on two China-based but North Korean controlled companies that provided various support (housing and transportation) services for the foreign workers and the security personnel who keep them under control.
April 23, 2020: China has sent a team of medical experts to North Korea to help with unspecified problems. This apparently has to do with recent heart surgery North Korea dictator Kim Jong Um had. There were complications and the patient has not been seen or heard from since the surgery eleven days ago. It was known that Kim suffered from diabetes, obesity and unspecified heart problems.
April 22, 2020: The 2020 World Press Freedom ratings were released showing North Korea in last place (out of 180 nations). This is largely because of decades of dictatorial rule which silences all criticism of anything. South Korea came in at 42nd. This as one of the better showings that most other nations in the region. For example Japan is 66th while Russia is 149, Thailand is 140, Afghanistan is 122, Burma is 139, Pakistan is 145, India 142, Bangladesh 151, China 177 and Iran 173. Some were better as in. In contrast Britain was 35, France 34, United States 45, Canada 16 and Germany 11. Top five were Norway in first place followed by Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Netherlands. Bottom five were Djbouti, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. These rankings are mainly about professional journalists and play down the impact of the Internet and many non-professional, but often well qualified, individuals who are now supplying a lot of the news, especially accurate reports of what is actually happening. The conventional media, which employs most professional journalists, has lost more than half its staff in the last twenty years as more people prefer non-professional or semi-pro reporters on the Internet. Governments find it easier to restrict the professional journalists, leaving the Internet based reporters as the main source of accurate reporting in many countries, like Thailand.
April 16, 2020: The government has been using sharp increases in electricity prices to encourage rural households to depend more on solar panels. The increases are often accompanied by a special tax on various electronic devices each household uses. This often leads to a household paying 20-30 times more than before for electricity. In addition to the higher power costs there are also more hours each day when there is no power at all. The electrical supply system has been falling apart since the 1990s. Lack of money for maintenance or new construction is the primary reason and the government has no solution.
April 15, 2020: For the first time since 2003 North Korea is issuing state backed bonds. State owned companies will be allowed to use these bonds to buy raw materials and other goods from other North Korean state owned operations.
April 14, 2020: North Korea has allowed North Korean university students studying in China to return to China and resume their studies. These students have been ordered back to North Korea earlier in the year as part of an effort to prevent a large covid19 outbreak in North Korea. These students were tested for covid18 when they got back to North Korea and will be tested again before returning to China.