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North Korea is in a bad way: Covid, famine, and crude economic policy are pushing the Hermit Kingdom closer to the edge

Being one of the what must be panda levels of endangered few print journalists born after the end of the Cold War, I admit I’ve always been a little lost when it comes to the modern implications of the nukes that are still left scattered around the world. My extremely basic understanding is that nukes are bad and we all promised not to use them anymore after the Berlin Wall collapsed or whatever, so the only times I’d ever really thought about them had been while considering what a dumbshit name the ‘Diefenbunker’ is or when India and Pakistan look at each other harder than usual.

And that was enough for me, until of course we got to 2017-18, when then-US president Donald Trump’s Twitter feed almost single-handedly elevated some experts’ assessment of the risk of nuclear annihilation to the highest it had been since peak Red Menace times. Except this go round they weren’t worried about the Ruskies, they were worried about North Korea. 

Now, I have to admit, I’ve never really been as into North Korea as I probably should have given the fact that the aggressively authoritarian state is led by a quirky gremlin man who commands near-god status and has a penchant for niche celebrities and political assassinations — the place is clearly right up my alley — but it’s always seemed too overdone: ‘Oh haha isn’t it funny that Kim Jong Un drives around in a Maybach with Dennis Rodman while his people starve? Oh haha isn’t it funny that South Koreans attach copies of that one James Franco movie to balloons and fly them across the border so that Northerners can watch footage of a different sexual predator for once?’

Yeeeah, look it up 

Like, it’s a little funny but not enough to make me want to associate myself with the people I’ve met who do care about North Korea. You know the type, it’s basically the same guy as the one who knows wayyy too much Soviet history but instead of collecting merit badges at Scouts, the NK guy went on 4chan. Also, I don’t like thinking about Kim Jong Un because I don’t like the idea that some guy halfway across the world can press a button that could kill me, someone he’s never even heard of. It’s like that one episode of Black Mirror with the robot bees. Freaks me out.

So basically, I haven’t paid that much attention to the so-called Hermit Kingdom because of 4chan and robot bees. Are you guys following this so far? Good, because now we’re going to learn about it together. First, a very brief history lesson: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established after WWII, right around when Russia and the US started their long-standing tradition of using other countries to fight each other but not before they stopped actually showing up to do that. As such, when the North, led by the Russian-installed Kim Il Sung, invaded the South in 1950, the US led the UN in retaliation against Kim Jong Un’s grandpa. Then China stepped in to help the North, millions died, families were separated and the ‘original’ borders between North and South were reestablished along a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that still exists today.

Since then, the Kim family has been carrying on their dynasty through strict political oppression and a cult of personality — the idea is that there’s only one acceptable ideology, Kim Il Sung thought; one acceptable party, the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) led by Kim Jong Un; and one political priority, military might. That last part is probably the most important because not only has this priority motivated the continued development of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program in the face of staggering odds, it’s also one of the main reasons why I’m talking about North Korea at all. 

Generic North Korea missile test pic

See, NK never stopped being at war with the US, and under the threat of nukes, the West has kept varying amounts of economic sanctions leveled straight at the regime’s face in an effort to pressure it into conceding nuclear capabilities. At this point though, it’s clear that Kim and the politburo views its arsenal as crucial to their nation’s sovereignty and overall existence, which I kinda want to say is fair — it’s not like they didn’t notice what happened to Iraq. 

The thing is, while those sanctions, the most intense of which were introduced by the UN as well as the US unilaterally under Trump in 2017, are certainly having an effect on the DPRK’s ability to, y’know, have resources, the WPK’s commitment to ‘military first’ priorities is holding fast. Even in the face of a rare admission by Kim that the country can barely feed itself. 

A couple months ago, the Supreme Leader addressed party members regarding the food shortage, evoking the spectre of the country’s previous “arduous march,” which refers to a brutal famine in the 90s that killed millions, and called the state of the nation a “worst-ever” situation. CNN reported an estimate by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization which says the country is short around 860,000 tons of food. This shortage is at least partly the direct result of the newest round of sanctions, which cut off fuel imports that farmers rely on to do farming. Additionally, a run of truly dismal weather had further fucked the country’s agricultural sector through 2020 as a drought and some typhoons had their way.

The final layer of North Korea’s shit cake is Covid. The government’s response to the international crisis was to further retreat into isolation, fearing that its underdeveloped healthcare infrastructure would not be able to handle the pandemic conditions. In early 2020, the DPRK closed its border with China, it’s closest (and virtually only) trading partner. It adopted a zero-tolerance policy for Covid-19 and though there have been reports of severe punishments related to this policy, the country has recorded no cases. Extremely believable guys, you’re definitely fooling everyone. 

A couple days ago, Kim made another rare if calculated show of weakness, appearing before the politburo looking visibly slimmer and informing the world that he had fired several senior officials in the wake of what he called a “grave” Covid-related incident. Some DPRK watchers are apparently of the opinion that Kim losing weight amounts to some kind of psyop to show solidarity with the people and boost morale, but it could also just be related to the fact that they have no fucking food. Regardless, if a looming Covid crisis were to collide with the ongoing food shortage, it could spell disaster for the Kim regime as a whole, so some see these two sombre announcements as coded appeals for aid from allies.


That said, North Korea’s only real ally is China, and though Beijing has indicated it would share vaccines, for some reason its exports to the DPRK tanked from around RMB 185 million in April to just RMB 1.7 million in May, which is a drop of over 90% according to data from the PRC’s customs bureau. This is on top of the nearly 85% drop in exports that came with the border closure. Nobody seems to know why this month to month drop is so intense either, which is suuuper cool. Oh, and also, while NK qualifies for the global vaccine sharing program, COVAX, issues with supply have stunted that program’s effectiveness, so it’s unlikely to be of much help in the face of an outbreak in the Hermit Kingdom. 

So to recap, natural disasters and sanctions have crippled this country’s agricultural sector, while Covid has shut out vast stores of imports from China — Al Jazeera quoted some guy as saying he “heard that there are literally thousands of containers stuck in Chinese ports that were meant to go to North Korea” but to be honest I don’t know if he could’ve been less convincing if he tried. The point is, a lot of North Koreans are about to starve and if they get unlucky up there, a lot more are going to get sick before they get through this shit.

If they get through it at all. Aid from anywhere but China has the potential for attached strings, and even aid from China would serve to further ingrain a dependency that DPRK leaders would rather avoid, as Geoffrey See points out in a World Economic Forum post. See runs the Choson Exchange, which trains Northerners in entrepreneurship so that they might contribute as individuals to what had been a growing economy prior to the pandemic. See argues that sanctions do little to affect the Kim regime, which just doesn’t seem to give a shit about them at all. Rather, he says that gradually lifting sanctions, thereby reducing the country’s dependency on China which both the West and North Korea have an interest in, and boosting the tourism industry along the border with South Korea, which the North has already invested in, would more easily open the door to denuclearization negotiations. 

It strikes me that now, a time when the DPRK’s engagement with China seems at an all time low, when individual contributions to productivity would be most welcome, and when the country needs vaccines and other healthcare resources, is the perfect time for the West to change tack and soften the fuckers up. I’m not suggesting that we become friends, but it’s clear that the government’s priority is to maintain military power even if it means sacrificing its own citizens to famine, so I am suggesting that we try something different. Trump got a foot in the door, but he was a raging moron, and though Biden is surely focused on domestic matters, it wouldn’t kill him to shoot Kimmy an email, just saying hey. Maybe he or the UN could toss a couple jabs or some non-perishables or something their way, you know, just to say sorry for all the abandoned tractors that I imagine are dotting the North Korean countryside. And who knows, maybe that gesture could blossom into a relationship that doesn’t revolve around dick measuring and tweeting and they could get literally anywhere closer to taking buddy’s bombs away. But what do I know, I started caring about this like 5 hours ago. Nuke me about it.


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