Loyalty comes first as North Korea braces for pandemic hardships
Seoul – Behind its self-imposed COVID-19 barricade, North Korea is more isolated than ever, and analysts say authorities are stepping up loyalty to the regime in the face of desperate times.
The impoverished country faces multiple international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and has long struggled for food, suffering from chronic food shortages.
North Korea was the first country to impose a strict lockdown when it sealed its border in January last year to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading from neighboring China, where it first appeared before. to sweep the world.
Pyongyang insists it has yet to see any cases of the virus – analysts doubt – but it has paid a huge economic price for the blockade, with leader Kim Jong Un acknowledging the hardships of his people and warning them to tackle the “worst”. never situation.
Trade with China, the North’s economic lifeline, has collapsed.
While the door has been opened in recent months – with Chinese customs figures showing the North imported $ 29 million worth of goods in April, more than double the amount in March – it remains at a fraction of the levels of before the pandemic.
“Pyongyang was in dire straits long before the pandemic,” said Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the RAND Corporation.
“The coronavirus pandemic exacerbates existing systemic, institutional and economic challenges. “
All international United Nations personnel and foreign aid workers left under strict restrictions.
Several United Nations relief groups have confirmed that the Needs and Priorities document, a key report that summarizes the humanitarian situation in the country and forms the basis of United Nations appeals, will not be released this year.
The coordinated decision was made “in the absence of on-the-ground assessment and monitoring due to movement restrictions related to COVID-19,” said Edwin Salvador, World Health Organization representative in Pyongyang.
The impacts of the pandemic have “very likely exacerbated” the humanitarian situation in the north, with some 10.6 million people in need, said a spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) .
The World Food Program, which has by far the largest international aid presence in the country, has warned it could cease operations this year in the absence of food imports.
In a rare admission of hardship, Kim called on his officials in April to “lead another more difficult ‘strenuous march’ in order to relieve our people a little from the difficulty.”
The “Hard March” is a North Korean term for the famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands when the fall of the Soviet Union left it without crucial support.
The allusion was meant to motivate people to “face adversity” and work for the “survival of the nation,” said Gianluca Spezza, associate researcher at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm .
“If North Korea’s history has taught us anything, it’s that the peculiar nature of North Korean nationalism causes the DPRK to ‘prosper’ (metaphorically of course) during the most difficult times,” a- he added, using the initials of the official name of the North. .
Words, actions and hairstyles
In recent months, Kim has sent a series of long letters to regime organizations such as the Youth League and the Trade Union Federation, hailing them for bearing the “witness to loyalty and patriotism,” according to the agency. KCNA press.
State media have also run a dozen reports since March highlighting hundreds of young people – sometimes orphans – “volunteering” to take on manual labor for the state, reverting to a style of propaganda from years past.
“The young people who volunteer to work in the mines, it’s definitely Pyongyang asserting its identity to the rest of the world – even though outsiders see these things as systematic human rights violations,” said Michael Madden, a member of the Stimson Center.
Kim also seeks to root out young “criminals” tarnished by foreign influences who are “dangerous poisons” to state ideology, amid reports of North Korean teens enjoying television shows, films and music from the South.
In his letter to the Youth League, the leader denounced the “words and deeds, the hairstyles and the clothes of the young people” and said that a “large-scale clean-up operation” was underway nationwide .
Pyongyang sought to indoctrinate the younger generation, who only experienced the arduous walk as a child, Madden said.
It was about “adjusting their expectations regarding their material and cultural life in the DPRK” and aligning them “closer to the Party, the regime and less dependent on things like South Korean markets and television broadcasts.”
At the same time, analysts note, the virus allows Pyongyang to decline responsibility for its economic woes.
Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies said, “North Korean authorities can blame the virus for any problems that existed long before the outbreak.”
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