North Korea has cut the few ties to the outside world it has maintained for the past two years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. From late January 2020, North Korea sealed off its borders, banning tourists from entering and quarantining all foreigners residing in the North for a month. Additionally, since March 2020, North Korea has been experiencing a steady exodus of foreign diplomatic personnel and aid workers. In March 2021, the last two UN international staff left the North, while International Committee of the Red Cross staff left in December 2020. In addition, the closure of the Romanian Embassy in October 2021 marked the end of a Western presence in North Korea.
In the name of fighting the pandemic, Pyongyang has essentially halted all foreign interactions, forgoing dialogue with the United States and South Korea, avoiding the Tokyo Olympics, the 2022 World Cup qualifiers and now the Beijing Olympics.
Establishing an iron curtain around the country’s borders was the only logical choice for North Korea, given that its healthcare system is not able to cope with the stress of a pandemic. However, what started out as a matter of logic escalated into irrational paranoia, which we can begin to understand by expanding the scope of Richard Hofstadter’s idea of individuals’ “paranoid style” to a state. The leaders’ isolationist policies, coupled with autarky goals and the fear of losing control of the country, have created a Manichean-like scenario, where COVID-19 becomes the evil and unstoppable enemy that must be eliminated.
However, this need to triumph over COVID-19 forces North Korea to devise unsustainable goals and practices, which have fueled the government’s sense of frustration over the inability to defeat such an enemy. Frustration compounded by internal political pressures for stability and control has deepened Pyongyang’s paranoia to the point where, for example, the central government has decreed that any unauthorized intruders crossing the border must be shot without warning.
Isolation, state surveillance and control
North Korea had to adapt its domestic and foreign strategy to deal with the lack of direct diplomatic exchanges caused by the isolation measures. Although not in a 1990 famine situation, North Korea was pushed to its limits by anti-pandemic measures and had to reopen its borders to the flow of goods and materials. The latest developments and relaxations in North Korean trade relations and legislation are an example of this. Rail trade with China restarted in early January and Pyongyang is in talks with Moscow to restore trade and economic ties. Amending its trade laws will allow Pyongyang to control and gradually expand its volume of trade with Moscow and Beijing initially while slowly increasing its confidence to re-engage with international players.
Amid the most recent relaxations, North Korea’s actions throughout the pandemic have shown the degree of hardship it is willing to endure to ensure national security and control. The January 2021 Party Congress pledge to increase political control and surveillance has been heightened by pandemic-induced paranoia. Fearing a loss of control over the people and the country, the Workers’ Party went above and beyond to tighten ideological control and suppress anti-socialist practices throughout the party, state and society. Similarly, the emergency anti-epidemic inspection team has been deployed to crack down on cross-border smuggling, and Pyongyang’s leadership has tried to stifle all actions that disrupt anti-pandemic measures, going so far as to block regional movements.
This heightened focus on national security has also prompted North Korea to reject any form of outside assistance. Opening the country to people-to-people interactions could have meant potentially spreading the virus and showing the vulnerabilities and hardships North Korea had to assume to maintain its isolationist policy. Locked down to maintain the course of its anti-pandemic policy, North Korea found itself without its usual means to circumvent the sanctions, necessary for the development of the economy of the State and the military program. The UN panel of experts said the only notable means North Korea has to generate revenue are through cyberattacks on financial institutions and virtual currency exchange offices. The constraints imposed on North Korea by the pandemic led to a contraction of between 8.5% (according to Fitch Solutions) and 10% (according to the Hana Institute of Finance) of the North Korean economy last year.
Due to pandemic paranoia and the resulting inability to rely on outside help, North Korea appears to have concluded that military development will remain its primary means of ensuring national security. The series of missile tests carried out since the start of 2022 seem to indicate Pyongyang’s decision to pursue an aggressive, maximum pressure-type foreign policy. Notably, a report from a Politburo meeting held in January shows that North Korea has now recognized that a long-term confrontation with the United States is inevitable. It is a clear signal to the United States, South Korea, and the international arena that the North will respond similarly to measures and actions it deems hostile, such as sanctions and military exercises. Pyongyang’s focus in 2021 on building military capabilities will continue throughout 2022.
It is obvious that pandemic paranoia has influenced, if not dictated, North Korea’s internal and external strategy. However, all the extreme measures Pyongyang has taken due to pandemic paranoia have been rationalized as an excuse to tighten internal control and dictate the rules of engagement with the outside in full. In the coming months, pandemic paranoia will still dictate most decisions in Pyongyang. The trend of tightening internal control over private activities and black markets will continue while pro-market and reformist policies are not advanced. Internally, Pyongyang will focus all its political and economic efforts on strengthening its self-sufficiency and military program.
A gradual easing of anti-pandemic and isolationist policies will take place, trade will gradually increase, and people-to-people exchanges will restart in phases at the pace of North Korea, probably not before late 2022 or in 2023. Trade will be controlled and used to circumvent the sanctions and further military development. Entry into or exit from the country will not be permitted except after careful consideration and only if it benefits North Korea’s own interests.
North Korea will primarily maintain a close relationship with China and strengthen its ties with Moscow to counterbalance dependence on Beijing. Despite the hampered economic ties, North Korea’s relations with Moscow and Beijing remain stable and are not expected to change. Notably, as noted in a letter from North Korea to China, Pyongyang’s refusal to participate in the Beijing Olympics, a possible avenue through which much-needed official contact with other nations could have been established, did not caused no setbacks and was dictated simply by external shocks. , namely (in the Northern narrative) the movements of hostile forces and the pandemic. Good relations with China and Russia are a must for North Korea as it will not let go of its aggressive foreign policy anytime soon.
North Korea will continue to show off its military capabilities by further testing its medium-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. North Korea could go so far as to test the recently upgraded version of its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unsurprisingly, KCNA said the country is reassessing whether to restart all temporarily suspended activities, namely long-range missile testing and nuclear testing. However, testing a thermonuclear device currently seems unlikely as it would cause North Korea to lose support from China and Russia. China is particularly sensitive to North Korea’s nuclear program, as demonstrated by the sanctions, unilateral or mandated by the UN, that it has imposed on Pyongyang each time the latter has tested a thermonuclear device. Both Moscow and Beijing play a vital role in protecting Pyongyang from further UN sanctions, as shown by their refusal to sign a US statement denouncing the seven tests the North carried out in January.
Finally, Pyongyang’s aggressive foreign policy is insurance against any eventual outcome of South Korea’s elections scheduled for March. If the conservative candidate wins, an aggressive policy will be the only guarantee for North Korea’s national security since inter-Korean engagement will be extremely weak, if not completely absent. The North will continue to develop its military power as the only way to demonstrate that the country will be able to overcome all obstacles – political avoidance, sanctions and other factors, such as natural disasters and COVID-19 – and to pursue its objectives and ensure national security.
If a progressive candidate wins, North Korea’s aggressive foreign policy could push the new South Korean president to adopt a diplomacy closer to current President Moon Jae-in, proactively seeking a commitment to reduce the tensions and resolve the escalating inter-Korean crisis. Seoul’s new government could increase the scope and value of its concessions to bring the North back to the negotiating table. Such a scenario will grant Pyongyang a higher position and bargaining power during the talks.
Overall, the pandemic has shown how North Korea will prioritize security priorities over economic priorities, regardless of what the United States, South Korea or any other international actor does. Going forward, the pandemic paranoia will die down and Pyongyang will try to control the narrative of its reopening and re-engagement with the international arena even more. Leaders will use the pandemic and all the hardships the North has had to endure as proof of the country’s ability to endure and grow on its own, without the need for outside help. Therefore, Pyongyang will not seek to engage proactively. Rather, the pledge will be framed as an endowment granted by North Korea to those who seek it, since Pyongyang will argue that it is self-sufficient.