With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Kim Jong Un revived a family tradition: castellated his nation in a hermetic lockdown. As if to imitate Prince Prospero, the fictional protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” Kim sealed the northern border, blocking ingress and egress. Like Prospero and his 1,000 fellow noblemen who hurriedly retreated into a fortified abbey and welded the doors shut as a deadly plague swept over the nation, Kim took extreme measures. Calling disease containment a matter of “national survival,” Kim tried his best to ensure the preservation of himself and his Pyongyang cohorts, while leaving millions of fellow North Koreans to fend for themselves.
But unlike the gruesome fate of Prospero and his fellow revelers, who all fell victim to the plague, the North Korean nobility has fared quite well. Throughout the first two years of grappling with COVID, while Kim, his family and courtiers exhibited few signs of nutritional diminution, the rest of the kingdom was exposed to progressively bizarre directives: to kill pigeons and cats; shoot on sight anyone who approached within 1 kilometer of the Sino-North Korean border; to eat black swans, as if they were readily available to the hungry people; and to eat less until 2025.
In mid-May 2022, Kim called the spread of the virus in his capital a “great upheaval” to befall his nation. But just three months later, at a party gathering on Aug. 10, he declared “victory” over COVID. This purported victory, the state news agency assured the outside world, was in fact a “great” feat. Perhaps it was so for the few thousands of the top class in Pyongyang, but for most North Koreans, life since the lockdowns has been “great” only in the degree of suffering.
At the same festive political event, Kim’s outspoken sister, Yo Jong, averred that South Koreans had purposefully transmitted into North Korea the coronavirus; she threatened “deadly vengeful response” against the South, including “extermination” of its government. Such brazen scapegoating echoes other two big lies often told by the Kim siblings: First, blame the U.S. for North Korea’s glaring deficiencies as a nation state; and second, blame “U.S. hostile policy,” which North Korea defines as anything from criticism of its deplorable human rights violations to the U.S. stationing troops in the South, for the regime’s disproportionate investment in the development of expensive weapons of mass destruction.
These two regime pathologies — gross negligence in feeding its hungry people and wanton spending on weapons programs — are related. They constitute the core characteristics of the so-called “Mount Paektu Bloodline,” the Kim dynasty. They are ruthlessly enforced. Keeping the people perpetually hungry and listless while depriving them of the means to secure food only enhances the regime’s power over them, rendering the populace ever more dependent on the state. And blaming the U.S. for such vast misery, in the regime’s view, explains the people’s cursed lives and justifies its lavish spending on inedible weapons.
The state has dealt its people each year since the mid-1990s one of the most serious food insecurity situations in the world. In the COVID era, the situation has only worsened. Reports of starvation and famine-like conditions surfaced in mid-2021. As much as North Korea tries to blame “U.S. sanctions” for the perennial hunger, it is the Kim regime that has implemented the strictest and most devastating sanctions policy on its people.
During North Korea’s bluster barrage in 2017, punctuated by three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests and a hydrogen bomb test, the U.S. tried its best to galvanize the world to enforce sanctions on North Korea. As a result, even China drastically decreased trade with the North. That December, China’s imports from North Korea fell by 81.6 percent from the previous December.
However, in 2020, according to 2021 Chinese customs data, total North Korean exports to China totaled only $89 million, 5 percent of the total for 2017. For the same year, 2020, total imports from China amounted to $774 million, just 20 percent of $3.778 billion total in 2017. Moreover, the sealing of the border has vastly restricted border crossings (that is, escaping North Korea). According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the number of North Koreans entering South Korea has fallen dramatically in the pandemic era — from 1,047 persons in 2019 to 229 in 2020, dipping even more drastically to only 63 in 2021. The most current number, as of September 2022, is 42 persons.
Even in the best of times, North Korea is a nation of hunger and darkness. In the COVID world, the North Korean people have suffered intensified poverty, hunger and human rights abuses, including the right to food, medical care, movement, information — even the right to life. But rather than importing food and distributing it equitably, Kim Jong Un recently rolled out his minor daughter at an ICBM blast event last month. It was the ultimate Great Leader gloat, a message to his adversaries that, while those who come and go via elections will be forgotten in just a few years, he, a dynastic monarch, is here to stay.
As if to rub it in even further, Kim turned up the psychological manipulation dial the following week by releasing photos of his daughter clothed in the style of her mother, beaming smiles next to him at a different ICBM celebration. What’s the subconscious message in the juxtaposition of a powerful missile that can hit the U.S. with nuclear warheads and a wholesome parent-daughter ensemble intended for the U.S. and South Korea? “Maybe Kim’s not that bad a guy, after all. He cares for his kid. He’ll be careful and, in time, become a responsible custodian of his nukes and missiles.”
The North Korean military this month fired about 130 artillery shells into the sea off its east and west coasts; some shells landed in the buffer zone between the North-South sea border. Another barrage of some 100 artillery shells into the sea ensued the next day. How should Washington and Seoul respond to these psychological and military operations?
How about with some propaganda of their own? South Korea should resume loudspeaker broadcasts into the North along the border. Ask North Korean soldiers and border-town dwellers some pointed questions — for example, why did their “great leader” roll out his daughter and not his older son? Does the boy’s face resemble more Hyon Song Wol, Kim’s old girlfriend, than his wife? Is it true that Hyon was pregnant with Kim’s son in 2012? Do they know that Kim’s late mother was born in Japan, a nation reviled by the Kim dynasty, and that she was a mere mistress to his father, Kim Jong Il? Do they know that Kim Jong Un, as much as he tries to evoke images of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, never met the original Great Leader because of his illegitimate birth? Do they know that Kim has declined repeated offers of food, vaccines and medicine during the pandemic? Drape the speakers with big photos of Kim Jong Un and North Korean soldiers would not dare shoot at them.
The final line of Poe’s story ends thus: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” If ever there were a real-life land that matched this macabre fictional landscape, it’s North Korea in the pandemic era. Shed some light on this dreadful domain.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.