By Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
September 10, 2020
As North Korea begins to ease its protective measures against the coronavirus pandemic, the country faces the massive challenge of rebounding from not only economic standstill in many parts of the country, but also economic sanctions that continue to weigh on the Kim regime. As internal sources indicate, the economic situation has become increasingly dire, and fast. Equivalently, the regime’s introduction of economic reform relevant to juche, North Korea’s principal ideology of self-reliance, is increasingly relevant in the near future.
Despite the lingering threats of viral spread, North Korea has begun to reopen parts of the country, such as schools. However, as the regime becomes more relaxed with time, it is cognizant of the fact that the return of infectious diseases, whether it is coronavirus or not, is inevitable. With a mindset of heightened vigilance and forward planning, one of the regime’s first priorities in restoring economic equilibrium is addressing a worsening food crisis.
As recent reports emerging from the secretive country indicate that the number of homeless people continues to increase, there is no doubt that the economic standstill from closing borders to limit the spread of coronavirus in January 2020 has compounded with sanctions already in place to expedite an economic deterioration, especially for the elites, due to the regime’s continued allocation of resources to support its military-first politics. Reports have recently emerged that Pyongyang residents engaged in panic-buying, and the reinforced closure of the Sino-North Korean border due to COVID-19 has disrupted virtually all supply chains to quasi-regulated markets, or jangmadang, which mostly cater to the ordinary masses.
The threat of food scarcity in the country is not a new one though. Warning of food insecurity problems in an April 2020 press release, the United Nations posited that the recent COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate an already less-than-ideal food situation to create a famine of “biblical proportions.” What is perhaps even scarier about this sentiment is the fact that North Korea’s previous famine in the mid-1990s claimed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. If reform fails to change the situation’s current trajectory, the threat of state-imposed mass starvation to the ordinary North Korean becomes very real.
For decades, North Korea’s guiding principle of juche has been a constant in guiding the state’s interactions with other nations that are not traditional allies such as Russia, the former Soviet Union and China. Realistically, however, the potential consequences of relying on isolationism in this era could be catastrophic. History demonstrates as much. While economic mismanagement and natural disasters specific to the region fueled the mid-1990s famine, the ongoing pandemic is a global crisis; the United Nations report indicates that tens of millions of people from dozens of other countries are in danger of food shortages. While the former situation forced North Korea to accept vast amounts of food and medical aid from the United Nations and other countries since then—unbeknownst to the North Korean public, mind you—things may very well be different in the latter situation. In a worst-case scenario, a global struggle against the virus conducive to stretched resources will result in limited aid for North Korea at a time when its citizens need it the most.
Notably, the limited quantities of medical and food supplies coming into the country from Russia and China will likely never reach ordinary North Koreans. As long as resources remain stretched, especially in Pyongyang, clear elitism and social discrimination will bar any possibility of equal distribution of supplies. Songbun status dictates in every situation; unless one has the money to afford proper medical care and food, these resources remain out of reach to those of lower songbun. This phenomenon explains the widespread inequality in healthcare standards and general quality of life in the capital and distant provinces.
The Supreme Leader’s attitude toward this pandemic is a defining factor in this critical moment. The Kim regime has essentially three options: 1) it can either retreat into increased isolationism as juche demands; 2) maintain the same level of international cooperation; or 3) expand international interaction.
The negative implications of an already-reclusive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that further retreats into itself are increasingly evident, and Kim Jong-un has maintained open lines largely with only the country’s more trusted allies. While his recent acceptance of Chinese and Russian aid during the pandemic is a positive sign, cooperation with those willing to help may be too little and too late. Although neither China nor North Korea have publicized the amount of aid granted during this time, the regime most likely still lacks the medical equipment necessary to conduct mass testing. If a second outbreak consumes Chinese and Russian resources, North Korea could find itself mostly on its own in fighting a famine. Juche would be a painful endeavor.
Heightened tensions with “enemy” states could also derail recovery efforts during a potential famine. Recent aggression towards both South Korea and the United States for leaflet campaigns conducted by refugees is a prime example and marks a sharp reversal in tone from Kim Jong-un’s request for medical aid from President Trump and other pro-engagement, pro-North Korean American groups in March. If the leader is attempting to reassert his authority over the country after disappearing from the public eye for weeks in May, this aggressive stance could make aid more difficult to acquire. Coupled with the country’s prideful disdain for handouts from “enemy” states, especially those that come with preconditions, North Korean leadership might not even appeal to traditional aid providers. Millions in the lowest classes in North Korea’s social hierarchy could suffer as a result.
Ultimately, whether or not North Korea is able to weather economic setbacks in the trying months ahead is not the point. The crux of the situation pertains to North Korea’s ability to preventively address the threats of future crises. Remedying resource gaps in both the economy and healthcare system is the best first step; new infectious diseases like COVID-19 stand as sudden threats to social stability while established ones like tuberculosis and measles continue to strain the system every year.
As Kim Jong-un faces a pivotal crossroads in his stance on juche relative to international cooperation, one thing has become abundantly clear: the regime’s continued deference to an arms race in lieu of basic human rights as well as entrenched social elitism represent symbolic games of roulette that the regime cannot win in the long run.
Benjamin Fu is an undergraduate student at Harvard College studying Government and Economics.
 “Running out of juche - Standoffish North Korea discovers the limits of self-reliance,” The Economist, May 28, 2020. https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/05/28/standoffish-north-korea-discovers-the-limits-of-self-reliance
 Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim, “North Korea Eases Coronavirus Lockdown Because Even Totalitarian States Need Trade,” The Washington Post, June 2, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-to-reopen-schools-trade-with-china-as-coronavirus-threat-recedes/2020/06/02/2f5229f8-a4a3-11ea-898e-b21b9a83f792_story.html.
 “Running out of juche.”
 UN Security Council, “Senior Officials Sound Alarm over Food Insecurity, Warning of Potentially ‘Biblical’ Famine, in Briefings to Security Council,” UN Doc, SC/14164. Dec. 22, 2014. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14164.doc.htm
 Donna Lee, "The North Korean Famine and Food Shortage: The Problem, the Politics, and the Policy," 2006, The North Korean Famine and Food Shortage: The Problem, the Politics, and the Policy (2006 Third Year Paper).
 Zack Beauchanmp, “Juche, the state ideology that makes North Koreans revere Kim Jong Un, explained,” Vox, June 18, 2018. https://www.vox.com/world/2018/6/18/17441296/north-korea-propaganda-ideology-juche
 Lee, “The North Korean Famine and Food Shortage.”; UN Security Council, “Senior Officials Sound Alarm over Food Insecurity.”
 Adam Cathcart, “With COVID-19 still raging in China and Russia, North Korea can’t relax just yet,” NK News, June 4, 2020. https://www.nknews.org/2020/06/with-covid-19-still-raging-in-china-and-russia-north-korea-cant-relax-just-yet/
 Kim Tong-Hyung and Kim Hyung-Jin, “North Korea destroys empty liaison office with South,” Associated Press, June 16, 2020. https://apnews.com/56f2aa6105f3b3c57b3ce9f788298dab; Choe Sang-Hun, “U.S. Supports Aid to North Korea for Fighting the Coronavirus,” The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/world/asia/coronavirus-north-korea-sanctions.html
 Kim Tong-Hyung, “Kim reappears in public, ending absence amid health rumors,” Associated Press, May 1, 2020. https://apnews.com/ba5aa2273f29bdb59257ef1ea9e4f58b
 Anthony Kuhn, “North Korea Claims Zero Coronavirus Cases, But Experts Are Skeptical,” NPR, Feb. 20, 2020.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.