By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
A little over a week ago, I wrote an essay for Foreign Policy Research Institute about Covid-19 in North Korea. The long-term challenge of Covid-19, combined with sanctions, of course poses a major economic challenge for North Korea. However, as I attempt to lay out, there’s another issue. Much of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy and policy focus has been tied up with economic construction and raising the people’s living standard. That looks like an increasingly distant prospect. With “just” sanctions, trade could have resumed and even expanded depending on the political moods in Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Moscow. Now with Covid-19, considerations are totally different:
Over the past few months, however, the tone of state rhetoric has changed. While before it breathed optimism, North Korean state propaganda now speaks much more—and more realistically—about problems and obstacles to economic development and about the old themes of autarky and economic self-reliance. For the time being, any plans to lift North Korea to a higher plane of economic development have largely been put on hold.
What does this mean politically for Kim Jong-un, who staked much of his credibility on delivering economic progress? The truth is that no one really knows. On the one hand, North Korea is perhaps the harshest dictatorship in the world, and the regime crushes even the slightest hint of dissent with an uncompromising iron fist. Over 100,000 people are estimated to be imprisoned in labor camps, many for crimes of political nature (or “speaking mistakes” as the Korean term goes), some for life. Kim Jong-un was in fact absent not just for one period of several weeks—the initial one that drew so much international attention—but for two different periods, and only appeared in North Korean media four times in all of April and May. Kim may be recovering from a medical procedure, but his absence may also be caused by caution against COVID-19. He may simply not want to conduct public visits or meeting sessions due to the risk of infection. In a system where so much power is centered around one single leader, his health is a top priority for national security in the eyes of the state, and will always be strongly guarded.
On the other hand, no dictatorship can truly function sustainably without any sense of at least tacit support from part of the population, such as the privileged, political core class. Kim has catered to this class in North Korea by overseeing their access to an essentially Western upper-middle class lifestyle in many respects, such as luxury department stores and a water park. The provinces have seen little of this development, and the massive and growing cleavage between the capital city and everywhere else is another long-term problem for the regime. Even so, life in the countryside has improved overall, albeit more marginally, thanks to the growth of the market system.
What happens when, over the course of a longer period of time, things not only cease to improve, but become markedly more difficult? The general public may heed the state’s call to get ready for some difficult times ahead for a while, but in the longer run, it may lead to widespread discontent. What that will mean for the North Korean regime, which has already survived challenges that seemed impossible, only time will tell.
(Full article here.)
In North Korea, it seems the regime is letting up on some of the strongest restrictions. For example, it will – and this says a great deal about the country’s complex economic system, where boundaries between illegal and legal trade are often unclear – “permit” smuggling to a greater extent:
North Korean authorities have decided to permit smuggling activities across some portions of the Sino-North Korean border from mid-June on the condition that smugglers pay foreign currency to purchase trade permits, Daily NK has learned.
According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on May 29, North Korea decided to allow traders in Sinuiju, Ryongchon, Uiju and Nampo Special City to conduct their activities from June 15. Traders who fall within the purview of the new measure include those working for trade companies affiliated with the military, Cabinet and other government agencies along with individual smugglers registered with companies.
WAKU BACK TO YOU
Traders must fulfill two conditions to restart their activities: 1) pay for their trade license (waku) in foreign currency; and, 2) in addition to their own imports, import items designated by the state and donate half of these imports to the government.
Even companies or individuals that already possess a waku must buy new permits with foreign currency because the permitted import lists on their trade permits must be changed to accommodate the import needs of the state.
North Korean authorities have reportedly ordered smugglers to include rice, flour, oil (cooking oil), sugar, MSG and other foods on their list of imports. Even traders who previously specialized in electric appliances or clothes must now include food items in their imports to be allowed to begin trading again.
The inclusion of these food items is likely the result of a measure handed down by the country’s Central Committee and Cabinet on Apr. 17 that restricted all “unnecessary” imports until the end of the year.
Following the announcement of the import restrictions, the prices of MSG, soybean oil and flour skyrocketed; there now appears to be great discontent among North Koreans about the scarcity of certain food products and the generally higher prices of food items. Daily NK’s source said that the addition of these food items to import lists is a direct result of this discontent.
North Korean officials have also announced that smugglers who hand over 70% of the food products – more than just the minimum of 50% – they import to the state will be given so-called “patriotic donation certificates.”
All in the all, the latest measure to open up smuggling across the border is aimed at both acquiring foreign currency (through the sale of trade permits) and stabilizing market prices by importing food items in demand.
The decision to open up smuggling in certain areas is likely due to difficulties in controlling smuggling activities in places like Ryanggang Province and North Hamgyong Province.
Smugglers in those regions are reportedly faced with the significant burden of having to move their operations to North Pyongan Province or Nampo.
Moreover, they have to submit a “letter of intent” to a North Korean agency saying they will be importing items from a particular Chinese trader and the existence of these traders in China must be confirmed by the North Korean embassy in China. These traders also have to compete with traders already based in North Pyongan Province and develop trading routes from scratch.
Ryanggang Province-based traders have mixed opinions on the move to open up smuggling across the border. Some believe that they need to take the opportunity to start trade again, while others think they should wait until the authorities officially permit smuggling across the border in the province.
(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea to permit smuggling over parts of Sino-NK border,” Daily NK, 1/6/2020.)
Meanwhile, schools are now open, with video clips to show it:
Schools in North Korea were supposed to start new semesters in early April, but the vacation period was extended repeatedly due to the coronavirus pandemic, though some colleges and high schools were allowed to open in mid-April.
In the footage, students were seen wearing masks, as were parents and teachers. Masks stayed on inside classrooms.
The resumption of schools might suggest concerns over the coronavirus have recently eased in North Korea or it could be aimed at projecting Pyongyang’s the country’s ability to contain the virus.
Meanwhile, news continue to come out of the country about deaths from symptoms similar to Covid-19, though of course, everything remains unconfirmed:
Dozens of people in two South Pyongan Province hospitals recently died after suffering symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections, Daily NK has learned.“The dozens of people who died recently were all patients at a facility caring for tuberculosis patients and the hepatitis care center at the Pyongsong City Hospital,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on June 4.
The Pyongsong City Tuberculosis Care Center and the Hepatitis Care Center at the Pyongsong City Hospital are both focused on treating patients with infectious diseases. Patients in these facilities are typically discharged only after receiving permission from their doctors.
The patients who died were all being hospitalized for preexisting conditions, but expired while receiving intensive care after they began showing signs of COVID-19 infections.
Both hospitals quickly blamed tuberculosis or hepatitis for the deaths and hospital workers were ordered to stay silent about the dead patients, the source said.
The sudden spike in deaths led some patients in the hospitals to run away from the facilities out of fear of COVID-19.
“Groups of patients left the hospitals out of fear that they could die if they stayed there any longer,” the source told Daily NK, adding, “Local authorities along with hospital managers were alarmed by this.”
Local and hospital authorities were reportedly concerned that the runaway patients might infect broader society with their diseases.
Local rumors about the runaway patients reportedly focused on the reaction of the authorities, which suggested that officials are still concerned about COVID-19.
Late last month, public health authorities in South Pyongan Province reportedly conducted a province-wide survey of people who showed symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections.
According to the source, the survey found that there are around 1,500 people quarantined either at home or at medical facilities in the province after complaining of high fevers, coughing, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms. Most of them are self-quarantining at home, while only a few with severe symptoms are in medical facilities.
(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “Source: Dozens recently died at two Pyongsong hospitals,” Daily NK, 5/6/2020.)