Esther Im and Andray Abrahamian on COVID-19

February 24, 2020

NCNK Program Officer Esther Im and NCNK Member Andray Abrahamian teamed up recently to write an article published by 38 North about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and North Korea's response. Looking back at how North Korea responded to the 2014 Ebola and the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crises, Esther and Andray sought to contextualize the current response to COVID-19 and determined that the COVID-19 response stands out for how rapid and how far-reaching the travel restrictions and quarantine measures are, demonstrates an increasingly aggressive approach to an established response to potential public health crises in the country, and illustrates the DPRK’s strong inclination towards a “control first” political culture.

The following is a short excerpt from the article. Click here to read the full article on 38 North (URL below):

The immediate closure of the border in response to COVID-19 was surprisingly swift given the time it took for North Korea to implement a response to both the 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks. Moreover, the comprehensiveness of the travel restrictions and quarantine measures at the outset also deviate from previous actions. At least during the response to SARS, a weekly Vladivostok flight continued to operate despite suspending the Beijing route. Humanitarian workers were also allowed to enter the country under special approval and after undergoing 10-day quarantine in a separate facility if they had any travel to SARS-affected countries.

The total country shutdown in 2020 in response to COVID-19 seems to follow the Ebola measures more closely than the SARS approach, but was enacted more swiftly and in a more comprehensive manner.

In addition to the control measures, there is also a notable breadth and volume of reporting in North Korea’s domestic media about COVID-19. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party paper aimed at a domestic audience, has carried regular (and surprisingly detailed) briefs on coordination of “anti-epidemic” efforts in different provinces, including the mobilization of volunteers and “medical workers” to travel to factories and farms to educate people about the disease and preventive measures as well as other information campaigns through loudspeakers and electronic displays. The outlet has also emphasized the need to practice responsible “hygiene,” including wearing masks. There is an air of accountability that appears novel to the current situation.

Does this indicate that there is already an outbreak in North Korea and it is doing its utmost to contain it? Does it reflect a new standard of operation under Kim Jong Un in favor of draconian measures to seal its borders and quell crisis? Does it mask a weakness in systems of control or reveal concerns about systems of control? Is this just a pragmatic measure for a country whose dominant international connection is China and whose public health system is badly under-resourced?

These are questions that we will not be able to answer with any level of satisfaction for the time being. But what is clear is the geopolitical shifts that shape the environment in which this crisis is unfolding in the region. Total trade between North Korea and China is more than three times higher today than in 2003, making for a more porous border for not just goods and services, but of people and information. Moreover, the nearly comprehensive multilateral and unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea make an efficient and timely international humanitarian response more challenging. For all these reasons, COVID-19 poses a more significant risk to North Korea today than the SARS outbreak did in 2003.

Given North Korea’s vulnerability to COVID-19 and the complicated sanctions regime that exists, the international community should plan and think proactively about what US and international aid organizations might need to support a containment effort as the year progresses.