SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – In more than a decade as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has made “self-reliance” the centerpiece of his rule, eschewing international aid and instead seeking domestic strategies to repair his battered economy.
But as a disease suspected to be COVID-19 Sickening hundreds of thousands of his own people, Kim stands at a critical crossroads: Either swallow his pride and receive foreign help to fight the disease, or go it alone, incurring potentially massive deaths that could undermine his leadership.
“Kim Jong-un” “It’s in a dilemma, a really huge dilemma,” said Lim Yeol-chul, a professor at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “If he accepts American or Western assistance, this could destabilize the position of self-reliance he has steadfastly maintained and the public’s confidence in him may be eroded.”
However, doing nothing can be disastrous.
Since recognizing the COVID-19 outbreak last week, North Korea has said an “explosive spreading fever” has killed 56 people and infected about 1.5 million others. Outside observers suspect that most of these cases were due to the coronavirus.
No matter what North Korea’s state-controlled media says about the sick, the outbreak will likely be many times worse. North Korea lacks adequate COVID-19 tests, and experts say it is drastically reducing the number of deaths to avoid potential public unrest that could harm Kim politically.
Some observers say the reported death toll is low in a country where most of the population of 26 million people is not immunized and there is a shortage of medicine.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, said the apparent underreporting of deaths by North Korea is aimed at defending Kim’s authority as he faces his “first and biggest crisis” in a decade of his rule.
The North’s outbreak may be linked to a massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April that Kim organized to showcase new weapons and loyalist forces. Tens of thousands of soldiers and residents from all over the country participated in the parade. After the event, Kim spent several days taking dozens of group photos with the parade participants, all without masks. Most of the photos were shared by dozens or hundreds of people.
North Korea may be able to hide the true number of deaths publicly, but the country’s tight restrictions on movement and quarantine rules could hurt its agricultural farming. Its economy is already reeling from more than two years of border closures and other restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul University of North Korean Studies, said North Korea is also concerned about shortages of medical supplies, food and daily necessities that have dried up in markets during border closures.
They are witnessing ‘another arduous march,’ Yang said, referring to the state’s euphemism for a devastating famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Kim previously refused millions of doses of vaccines provided by the UN-backed COVAX distribution programme. After North Korea acknowledged the outbreak, South Korea and China offered to send vaccines, medicines and other medical supplies to North Korea. The United States said it supports international aid efforts, although it has no current plans to share vaccine supplies with North Korea.
Receiving outside help would put the North, who feels very proud, though poor, in a difficult position. Kim has repeatedly described his country as “impervious” to the epidemic over the past two years. However, he said on Saturday that his country was facing “significant turmoil” and that officials should study how China, his country’s only major ally, and other countries were dealing with the pandemic.
Prof Nam said Kim would likely want to eventually receive Chinese aid shipments, but not from South Korea, the United States or COVAX.
He said that “overcoming the ‘Great Upheaval’ with the help of what North Korea calls American imperialists and from South Korea will not be tolerated because that goes against the dignity of its Supreme Leader.”
Seo Yoo-suk, an analyst with the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies, said North Korea would only accept Chinese aid if it was conducted in an unofficial and undisclosed manner, as it was “a matter of national pride.” He said that China will likely agree to this because it sees the aid shipments as a way to strengthen relations with a partner in the face of the West.
But Cho Han-bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said North Korea may look to South Korea for support as it questions the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. He said that South Korean shipments through the Korean land border will also be faster.
Experts are divided over what support North Korea needs most. Some are calling for 60 million to 70 million doses of vaccine to be sent to vaccinate its people multiple times. Others say it is too late to send in such a large volume, and that North Korea needs fever reducers, test kits, masks and other daily necessities.
Since preventing the virus from spreading through the country’s unvaccinated population is already unrealistic, the goal should be to provide a limited supply of vaccines to reduce deaths among at-risk groups, including the elderly and people with existing medical conditions, Jung Jae said. Hon, A.; Professor of Preventive Medicine, Gachon University, South Korea.
“The fight against COVID-19 requires comprehensive national capacity, including the ability to test, treat and vaccinate people,” Young said. “The problem cannot be solved if the outside world helps with only one or two of these elements.”