Lies, damn lies and North Korea’s Covid statistics

More than two years since North Korea sealed off its border in January 2020 and has not recorded any Covid-19 cases or deaths in all the months since then, the country last week admitted a coronavirus outbreak that reportedly began in late April. The latest figures from North Korea’s state media say 1.5 million people (out of a population of 25 million) have fever, with 56 dead from the virus. Other estimates put the number of cases at around 2 million. The surge in numbers appeared huge as early mention of the outbreak a week ago recorded around 190,000 people in quarantine and 350,000 with fevers. This in a country that has turned down international offers to support a vaccination program.

It’s not surprising that pundits and skeptics alike are questioning the validity of North Korea’s Covid numbers given the lack of transparency and mass testing capacity. In April 2020 I wrote for The interpreter on the unreliability of North Korea’s claim of zero Covid-19 cases (Vietnam, North Korea, Politics and Covid-19: The Numbers Tell a Story), arguing that the state could easily censor all reports of infections to keep sense of the normality and keeps its economic and military goals on course. Indeed, for the past two years, North Korea has continued its missile and nuclear development activities as usual while weathering the negative economic impact of its border closure with China.

The explosion of cases is as baffling as North Korea’s reported zero cases over the past two years.

So this sudden admission of an outbreak signals an important development for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who had touted the country’s zero Covid cases as fulfilling his promise to improve people’s living standards.

But just as it is difficult for outsiders to accurately assess the validity of North Korea’s Covid-19 statistics, it is also unclear what, if any, political motivations were behind the admission. The sudden explosion of cases is as baffling as North Korea’s reported zero cases in the past two years.

Three plausible explanations can guide our understanding of North Korea’s management of the outbreak and whether it may finally agree to receive international aid.

1. North Korea is really having an outbreak. And it escalates uncontrollably.

Assume for a moment that this outbreak really just happened and the announcement isn’t an attempt to obfuscate what was instead a long-standing case count. From a public health perspective, an outbreak of the virus seemed inevitable. The Omicron variant has proven more contagious, challenging neighboring China and contributing to a global spike in infections. The state had also insisted on holding maskless public gatherings for the April 15 celebrations of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday due to the lack of a national vaccination program.

North Korea’s health infrastructure is ill-equipped for an outbreak. There is a lack of testing, as well as the ability to properly care for sick people. This explains why state media record the number of people with fever but not with Covid-19. The inaccuracy of the statistics isn’t necessarily an attempt at censorship, but may reflect North Korea’s inability to even manage an outbreak.

Pyongyang in December 2021 (Kyodo News via Getty Images)

If the situation worsens, Pyongyang may have no choice but to accept international aid. So far, the North has dispatched planes to pick up medical supplies from China, but it is still silent on receiving medical aid from South Korea. It is possible that Pyongyang will continue to say no to other foreign aid if China can adequately meet North Korea’s needs. Kim has publicly expressed his admiration for China “in the fight against it.” [the] vicious epidemic” at a meeting last Saturday. Importantly, North Korea would not have to worry about Western interference if aid came from China or if China were to serve as a third party support.

2. North Korea had an outbreak. And the timing of the announcement is political

Whenever news about North Korea emerges, it’s an analytical habit to look for motives. North Korea’s health infrastructure has always been poor, so an outbreak should have happened earlier given reports from Daily NK of more than 100,000 suspected infections in the country in November 2021. Claims of large numbers of Covid-19-related deaths were not unknown before the outbreak, and many people died of virus symptoms after exiting government quarantine facilities.

In short, the suspicion is that North Korea had an outbreak prior to April 2022, and recent events have only confirmed previous reports of community transmission, which the government has denied.

However, the timing of this announcement of a breakout is peculiar. Pyongyang would not want to attribute the spread of the virus to April 15 celebrations (even given the reports of infections following those parades), as that news would tarnish the regime’s holy holiday.

Regardless of the government’s motives or the validity of the statistics, the undeniable fact is that North Korea is highly vulnerable to an outbreak.

But the timing makes sense from a foreign policy perspective. North Korea announced the outbreak days after the inauguration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and just ahead of a visit to South Korea by US President Joe Biden, which is expected on May 20. Neither Biden nor Yoon have completely avoided the diplomatic option with North Korea, although both expect Pyongyang to become more provocative in the near future as the US warning of possible missile tests coincides with Biden’s visit.

North Korea may want to test the waters, using the eruption as an excuse to resume inter-Korean exchanges. The rapidly growing number of people reported to be suffering from fevers could create a sense of urgency to help the north, which will allow Pyongyang not to have to come forward first. Importantly, the urgency can deflect criticism if North Korea later decides to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

However, such a statement depends on North Korea’s response to offers from South Korea or international medical assistance.

3. In the end, all politics is local

On the day the outbreak was announced, North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles. It is worth noting that the government was aware of the spreading infections but proceeded with testing anyway. The government had also fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile five days earlier.

A loyalty test for Kim Jong-un? (Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

Korea observers have speculated the North could conduct another nuclear test and are now questioning whether the outbreak could prompt a rethink. History suggests that Covid concerns have not halted the country’s weapons programs for the past two years. North Korea will either test a nuclear device to show its strength in tough times, or it won’t because of repeated technical failures rather than the outbreak, although it will save face by blaming Covid for halting testing.

Kim may also want to use the outbreak announcement to quell growing public discontent against the national lockdown or conduct a purge of officials. Kim had previously accused senior officials of incompetence in “causing a serious incident that poses a major crisis for the security of the nation and its people.” An increase in the number of suspected cases could be accompanied by an increase in purges or more widespread raids in the coming months.

If the timing is an attempt to strengthen loyalty to Kim, North Korea is likely to emphasize ideological control under him yay (stand alone) mantra, and it does not accept any medical help from outside. International aid organizations have not received any direct or indirect requests for help from North Korea. The local military has been mobilized to get medicines to the people and surveillance measures have been stepped up, likely with two aims, to stop the spread of the virus and prevent a security vacuum in the country’s defences.

In the end, it is the North Korean people who suffer from their government’s decisions. Regardless of the government’s motives or the validity of the statistics, the undeniable fact is that North Korea is highly vulnerable to an outbreak. The international community should be ready to offer humanitarian aid to the country and should not be discouraged when North Korea says no.

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