North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared in public only four times since his heart surgery in April. Meanwhile his younger (31-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong has received several promotions and is portrayed as a senior official who is making a lot of decisions. There is much to do and more of those problems are showing up in the capital, which is no longer isolated from all the miseries common in the rest of the country.
The key problem is the declining economy caused by sanctions and made worse by border restrictions in response to the covid19 threat. The shortages are so severe that even the capital is visibly suffering from it. In addition, over a decade of deferred infrastructure maintenance has led to problems with utilities (water, sanitation, power and building repairs). The capital was always the one place where these problems did not exist. Ever since Kim Jong Un took power there was more emphasis on “mobilizing all resources” to build a growing number of prestige projects, including a ski resort. This led to less maintenance of less visible systems, like public utilities. That eventually catches up with you and in North Korea it is catchup time and even needed prestige projects, like a new hospital in the capital, cannot be built on time because there is not enough of too many essential items.
A few months ago, it appeared that the South Korean GDP would shrink less than two percent in 2020 and there would be robust normal growth in 2021. The economic data for the first six months of 2020 now indicate otherwise. During the first three months GDP was down 1.2 percent compared to first quarter 2019. The second quarter was worse, down 3.3 percent compared to 2019. The economy is now in recession and the 16.6 drop in exports in the second quarter is serious because exports are crucial to economic growth and export customers are not increasing orders. Currently it looks like GDP will decline more than two percent for the year and 2021 may not be the boom year it was earlier expected to be.
North Korean economic problems are much worse and continue to multiply with covid19 adding to the sanctions related problems. North Korea is going through the worst economic crises since the famine years of the 1990s. GDP is expected to shrink by at least seven percent in 2020. What little cash available is going to food imports. In April North Korea brought in five times as much Russian grain as it did in April 2019. There is growing hunger in North Korea and it is visible. Chatter, video and photos still get out of the country and documents the growing lack of food. Foreign analysts estimate that at least 40 percent of North Koreans are going hungry. The government is trying to provide large scale deaths from starvation and so far, has succeeded.
July 25, 2020: For the first time North Korea (as in Kim Jong Un) admitted it had someone in the country with covid19. The patient was described as a South Korean who was actually a North Korean that had been in South Korea for three years and got homesick. He allegedly sneaked across the DMZ (the most heavily guarded border on the planet) and turned himself in to North Korean police on July 19th. South Korea is investigating the veracity of this incident and why it occurred now. The North Korean man was soon identified as a 24-year-old from Kaesong City (near the DMZ) who got to South Korea in 2017 but had problems adjusting to life in the south. He appears to have got back to North Korea by swimming up the east coast. He may have been spotted and picked up by a North Korean patrol boat. The announcement of this “first case” was followed by additional travel restrictions in towns and cities near the South Korean border, starting with Kaesong City.
This announcement is seen as a North Korean call for offers of foreign aid to deal with their current crises and their first case of covid19. The reality is that North Korea has had cases of covid19 since at least February. Back then there was an incident in the northwest (North Pyongan Province) where a man died from what officials described a pneumonia. Others involved identified the man as a successful smuggler who often travelled to China and back legally and illegally. He was widely believed to have died of covid19. This would not be unusual because North Pyongan Province contains 12 percent of the national population, and an even larger portion of GDP. It is the site of most trade with China, and most smuggling as well. Several days later the government basically put the provincial capital (Sinuiju) on lockdown with few people allowed to enter or leave the city. Sinuiju is on the Yalu River across from the Chinese city of Dandong. At that point at least seven cases of covid19 had been identified in Dandong, the city though which passes over 60 percent of the legal trade between China and North Korea. There have been other cases of covid19 accidentally imported from China since then but North Korea prevented the virus from spreading. The lockdown measures weakened an already crippled economy and increased poverty, hunger and cases of poor health brought on by so many shortages. Despite North Korean insistence that they were “virus free” most North Koreans wore face masks and the street chatter seemed to take it for granted that covid19 was in North Korea, but had not yet spread far.
July 23, 2020: Covid19 is considered such a major threat that the Central Committee of the Workers (communist) Party did something unprecedented by sending a letter to all officials in the provinces bordering China, including commanders of border guard and other military and police units. The letter pleaded with these officials to do more about the smuggling and the risk of bringing covid19 into North Korea. These officials had already received, several times, more strongly worded messages to do more about the smuggling but that has not eliminated the problem. The letter asks border officials to think of the welfare of the entire country and not just themselves. Normally the Central Committee, which contains 235 senior officials of the North Korean government, issues orders, not requests.
There is apparently panic in the Central Committee about the resurgence of the covid19 threat across the northern border in China. North Korea has already taken extraordinary efforts to halt smuggling this year, mainly because there were several instances of covid19 infected smugglers getting into North Korea with the potential for spreading the disease. Apparently, most of those smugglers with covid19 were discovered and promptly executed. While covid19 is basically another influenza type disease with a higher death rate (about 0.6 percent versus 0.1 or 0.2 percent for the annual flu) there is not enough modern medical care in North Korea to deal with a major outbreak of covid19. When covid19 shows up about ten percent of the infected population actually show symptoms, feels very sick and those who are already suffering from an illness (including old age) are the most likely to die. This has the few thousand senior officials, and their families, terrified. The officials don’t want to die and their families know they lose their privileged lifestyle because of such deaths. This has motivated the military, secret police and border guards in general to be more effective (and less willing to take a bribe) at the border.
To encourage that trend punishments are more frequent and more severe for those caught or even suspected or bad behavior. Border security personnel are being fired (discharged from the secret police or senior jobs) and units disbanded if there are signs of slack behavior (taking bribes from smugglers). Border security has never been so tight, at least not in living memory. You can sometimes hear this, as North Korea border guards are now more frequently opening fire on those (Chinese or North Korean) suspected of engaging in smuggling. This has led to some diplomatic problems with China as several recent gunshot victims, including one fatality, were Chinese.
Despite all these measures it is still possible to bribe your way across the border. The bribes are larger and it takes a little longer to find someone willing to take the bribe and look the other way.
Chronic shortages of food and medicine have led to more of the general population being susceptible to a fatal case of covid19. This has led to more general fear of covid19 than in China or South Korea. The greatly reduced flow of smuggled goods is notable in the markets where Chinese and South Korean consumer goods are much more expensive because of the shortages. Many items, like Chinese cell phones, have doubled in price. The Chinese cell phones have also received more attention as the government increased efforts to catch and punish people found using those phones near the border to make illegal calls to the outside world. Those calls are still being made but there are fewer of them and they are often very brief. In many cases texting has replaced voice calls, even though voice is preferred because of its importance in maintaining personal relationships across the border. The news is still getting out, and in, just more slowly and with fewer details.
July 22, 2020: Trade between North Korea and China declined 70 percent during the first five months of 2020. This is according to official data. There has been some smuggling, which China does not disrupt as in the past. But on the North Korean side of the border there have been seriously effective efforts to reduce smuggling, mainly because of the risk of bringing in covid19. The reduction in legal and illegal trade had reduced North Korean cash reserves and caused unprecedented shortages throughout the country.
July 16, 2020: American media revealed that two years ago the U.S. president had secretly given the CIA permission to take more aggressive action against hacker groups that have been responsible for attacks on the United States. This seems to explain a number of unexplained incidents were hacker groups had identities of members revealed or their operations sabotaged or disrupted. The CIA, NSA and Department of Defense had long been asking for this authority. Granting it to the CIA allowed the CIA to bring in NSA and Department of Defense experts for joint operations. Russian hackers have been responsible for a lot of the successful hacking operations inside the United States. Chinese, North Korean and Iranian hackers have also been active and they are also on the CIA target list.
July 10, 2020: No more disarmament negotiations. Kim Yo Jong made it official by announcing any more negotiations with the United States over disarmament, including meetings with the American president would be impractical as long as the U.S. supported economic sanctions on North Korea because of the missiles and nuclear weapons programs.
July 2, 2020: Kim Yo Jong was made a full member of the politburo (a committee of senior officials that, technically, runs North Korea). This comes three months after Kim Yo Jong was made an alternate (candidate) member of the politburo. That occurred when it apparently became clear that supreme leader Kim Jong Un was in declining or precarious health. His younger sister had been quietly groomed for these senior jobs since 2012 when, at the request (or order) of her older brother she agreed to get serious about the family business (ruling North Korea) because with the ascent of Kim Jong Un to power she was the heir apparent, successor or crown princess and the job was hers to lose. The sister has turned out to be as determined and ruthless as her brother, father and grandfather, or at least enough to satisfy most of the senior leadership.
July 1, 2020: In North Korea all school buildings were officially sealed, after two days of disinfecting, for an early vacation starting today. Special trains were arranged to take all university students home. This is part of an effort to halt the spread of covid19, which has broken out again across the border in northeast China.