Assessing North Korean Media Coverage of a Domestic COVID-19 Outbreak

(Source: KCNA)

North Korea’s official acknowledgment of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, though not shocking, was an unusually bold step.[1] State-run media for more than two years have been saturated with reports sounding the alarm about the virus and highlighting the country’s quarantine efforts, all clear indicators that the leadership harbored strong concern about the possibility of an outbreak. However, both the level of detail disclosed and the targeting of the domestic audience are remarkable, given the regime’s general reluctance to explicitly acknowledge any disease outbreak.

That said, we are left with the question of why North Korea decided to now disclose this damning information after more than two years of denying any cases (contrary to many outside reports). Moreover, why is the North reporting on the status of suspected COVID cases in such detail, providing daily tallies—down to city and provincial levels—of new cases and even deaths?[2]

Controlling the Narrative

From a Local to a National Posture: North Korean media reported on May 13 that a fever “explosively spread nationwide from late April,” indicating that the outbreak could no longer be contained quietly at local levels.[3] As such, the regime appears to have acknowledged the problem head-on in order to get the people’s buy-in before transitioning to a national “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”

Announcing the news to the domestic public as well as external audiences only underscores the severity of the situation and the leadership’s alarm. North Korea has in the past explicitly acknowledged disease outbreaks, for example, foot-and-mouth disease and bird flu, but such admissions were rare and almost always reserved for outside audiences.[4] They usually were used to elicit South Korean or international assistance while shielding the domestic populace from such negative information. However, the lack of notable discrepancies between North Korea’s domestic (Rodong Sinmun) and external media (the Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA website) reports on the COVID situation suggests the country is not seeking international assistance this time around, at least not publicly. (When North Korea is seeking outside help, it typically releases additional information highlighting difficulties via external media outlets like KCNA.)

A health crisis of this scale and magnitude is unprecedented in North Korea; therefore, it is impossible to find an exact parallel comparison. But one past case that we may look to as a point of comparison is the regime’s handling of the flooding in North Hamgyong Province in 2016. North Korea belatedly announced flood damage to the domestic public before organizing a national recovery effort, similar to how North Korea had to acknowledge a disease outbreak this time before transitioning to a national counter-COVID posture.

In early September 2016, North Korea announced to the outside world (via KCNA) that tens of thousands of people had lost their homes and people were missing in the aftermath of flooding, and that recovery efforts were underway in that province.[5] Ten days after the flood damage was first announced externally, the North Korean party issued an appeal to all Korean Workers’ Party members, soldiers and the people on redirecting the goal of the already-in-progress “200-day campaign,” a nationwide mass labor mobilization campaign to increase economic output, to flood recovery.[6] North Korea even took the highly unusual step of reporting “hundreds of human casualties that include deaths and missing persons” to the domestic public, probably to bolster its position on why national resources had to be diverted to flood recovery efforts.[7]

The 10-day delay in making a domestic announcement suggests the regime was hoping to elicit outside help while rebuilding North Hamgyong Province locally without having to inform the entire country.[8] Only when it became clear that the extent of the damage was too great to handle locally did North Korea inform the entire population and turn a mass labor campaign into a national flood recovery movement.

Pyongyang Matters: The heavy concentration of suspected COVID cases in Pyongyang appears to have been another major wrinkle that the regime could not ignore. The initial report on the COVID outbreak mentioned that the North confirmed an outbreak after conducting tests in “the capital.” The next day, Kim said, “the simultaneous spread of fever with the capital area as a centre.”[9] Pyongyang is not only the heart and soul of North Korea—it is where the vast majority of the country’s elite reside. It seems possible that the unusual succession of Politburo meetings and visits to Pyongyang pharmacies by Kim Jong Un, as well as the media’s unprecedented daily updates on a disease outbreak, were at least in part intended to address Pyongyang residents’ concern and show them that the top leadership was managing the crisis.[10]

This is not the first time unusual steps have been taken in an apparent effort to appease the people of Pyongyang, showing that the Kim leadership takes public sentiment in the capital seriously.

In May 2014, for example, North Korea took the extraordinary measure of announcing an apartment building collapse in Pyongyang and having senior officials apologize to “bereaved families, citizens in the district and other Pyongyangites” for this disaster.[11] The regime’s handling of this incident tracked with a move toward greater transparency under Kim Jong Un, but a public admission and apology for an accident were considered highly unusual.

North Korea’s Politburo meeting in June 2020—roughly four months into a border shutdown to prevent a COVID outbreak—discussed “ensuring living conditions for citizens in the capital city.”[12] It was the first time the North singled out a specific region’s living conditions as a Politburo meeting agenda under Kim Jong Un. State media’s readout of the meeting only mentioned building more houses for Pyongyang residents; the government daily’s report on a follow-up cabinet meeting implied more immediate problems pertaining to livelihood, such as improving waterworks and increasing vegetable production for the people of Pyongyang.[13] The unusual treatment of Pyongyang seems to have been an attempt to pacify the people in the capital, whose daily life was reportedly disrupted after the North sealed its borders.

Putting Things Into Perspective

Assessing the accuracy of North Korean media reporting on the COVID outbreak goes beyond the scope of North Korean media analysis and this paper. State media in recent days have reported on a “favorable turn” and “effectively curbing and controlling” the epidemic, which seems to suggest the regime’s confidence in managing the situation.[14] North Korea almost certainly reported on the COVID outbreak because the situation could no longer be contained quietly, and keeping the people informed was deemed crucial for managing the crisis effectively. Providing daily tallies would seem to leave the regime little maneuvering space for any gross underreporting of numbers and make it almost risky—even when considering the convenience, or perhaps even the need to bring the situation to a closure by the party plenary meeting scheduled for early June.[15]

At the same time, greater transparency has been the hallmark of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. From the early days of his rule, North Korea has shown a tendency to acknowledge shortcomings and problems, the admission of a building collapse in 2014 noted above being one of many examples. North Korean media relaying Kim Jong Un’s criticism of officials or acknowledgments of failure—once novelties that made the headlines around the world—have become the norm.

Even with this changed threshold, the extent to which North Korean media have gone to provide daily updates of new cases, recoveries and deaths is extraordinary, considering the country’s history of avoiding reporting on a disease outbreak altogether if it could. Even disclosing ballpark figures of human casualties, particularly deaths, to the domestic public is rare, the mention of “hundreds of human casualties” in reference to the 2016 floods in North Hamgyong being one groundbreaking example.

The unusual level of detail appears to be part of the regime’s strategy to curb the spread of the virus by keeping the public informed. It also seems at least in part intended to justify reimposing emergency lockdown measures after starting to ease them up in recent months.

Only time will tell if the COVID outbreak has opened a new era of information dissemination for the North Korean regime, or if this is just a one-off event.

  1. [1]

    “8th Political Bureau Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun, May 12, 2022.

  2. [2]

    “Epidemic Spread and Treatment Results in DPRK,” Rodong Sinmun, last accessed May 23, 2022.

  3. [3]

    “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Visits State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters,” Rodong Sinmun, May 13, 2022.

  4. [4]

    See: “Measures against Foot-and-Mouth Disease Taken in DPRK,” KCNA, February 22, 2014; and “Bird Flu Spreads in DPRK,” KCNA, April 9, 2014.

  5. [5]

    See: “North Hamgyong Province of DPRK Suffered from Flood Damage,” KCNA, September 3, 2016; and “Emergency Relief Activities in Flood-hit Areas of DPRK,” KCNA, September 8, 2016.

  6. [6]

    “WPK Central Committee Calls upon All People to Turn Out in Operations to Recover from Flood Damage in Northern Area,” Rodong Sinmun, September 12, 2016.

  7. [7]

    Author translated from “일심단결의 위력떨치며 온 나라가 함북도 북부피해복구전투에 총궐기,총집중,” Rodong Sinmun, September 14, 2016.

  8. [8]

    “DPRK FM Briefs Asian Diplomatic Envoys on Situation,” KCNA, September 14, 2016.

  9. [9]

    “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Visits State Emergency Epidemic Prevention Headquarters,” Rodong Sinmun, May 13, 2022.

  10. [10]

    “Consultative Meeting of Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Held Again,” Rodong Sinmun, May 16, 2022.

  11. [11]

    “Profound Consolation and Apology Expressed to Bereaved Families of Victims of Construction Accident,” KCNA, May 18, 2014.

  12. [12]

    “Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” Rodong Sinmun, June 8, 2020.

  13. [13]

    본사기자, “당중앙위원회 제7기 제13차 정치국회의 결정을 철저히 관철하자-내각전원회의 확대회의 진행,” Minju Joson, June 27, 2020.

  14. [14]

    See: “Politburo Consultative Meeting of WPK Central Committee Held,” Rodong Sinmun, May 21, 2022; and “More Measures Taken to Keep Stable Situation of Anti-Epidemic Campaign in DPRK,” KCNA, May 24, 2022.

  15. [15]

    “8th Political Bureau Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun.

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