North Korea claims no COVID-19 case but still suffering from the virus

Kim and Trump shaking hands at the red carpet during the DPRK-USA Singapore summit (Wikimedia Commons).

Although the North Korean government claims there is not a single COVID-19 case within its borders, the country is clearly going through some economic difficulties due to coronavirus, analysts said Thursday.

North Korea closed its borders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when cases started surging in China, and Pyongyang imposed strict domestic restrictions to prevent the virus. However, this situation gave some limitations to their trade and tourism industry.  

“North Korea is still saying it does not have a single positive case of coronavirus, which is very difficult to believe,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), during an online event.

Closing the border “dramatically reduces income from trade and tourism.” After the border closing, the regime did begin easing some domestic restrictions, “but because of the closure of the border with China, it significantly decreases imports of goods from overseas,” Terry said.

With combined impacts of sanctions and coronavirus, North Korea is experiencing a severe food shortage, and it brings a legitimate concern about their regime’s food supply and economic stress.

In that situation, Terry raised concern about how the situation affects North Korea’s attempts to negotiate with the United States.

Terry said “it’s very likely that North Korea is going to put pressure on Washington in the coming months.”

In terms of humanitarian needs in North Korea, Robert King, a senior CSIS advisor on Korean affairs, said it would be even more complicated as the economy around the world continues to shrink. “Resources are simply not going to be available for providing assistance to North Korea either in terms of humanitarian medical aid or in terms of COVID-19 aid,” said King, a former special envoy on North Korea human rights at the U.S. Department of State.

According to Victor Cha, also a CSIS Korea specialist, North Korea will likely ramp up provocations toward the United States during the 2020 election period.   

Terry also said “we have data that shows there are more provocations of missile launches in the election year.”

“It’s just their habit. It’s what they do every time there is an election in the United States and South Korea to put more pressure on new government when they take office,” Cha said.

However, King said North Koreans have never been willing to engage in the U.S. during the election year. “North Koreans aren’t willing to take many risks with uncertainty hanging over things,” especially when they don’t know who is going to be the leader.

King said that “Congress is not going to be focused on North Korea” in the near term and he doesn’t expect much change in relations. The Trump administration, he said, is sufficiently enough preoccupied with the problems of the upcoming election and trying to deal with the election in the context of coronavirus issue.  

“Right now, the Congress is less here physically in Washington, and hence, they aren’t going to be having a lot of time focusing on other issues other than re-election and the ongoing COVID pandemic,” King said. “And I don’t see much innovation coming from the United States in terms of humanitarian or other kinds of assistance.”

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