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[News Analysis] Experts weigh in on aftereffects from N. Korea’s full COVID-19 lockdown

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chairs a politburo meeting, Nov. 30, 2020. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chairs a politburo meeting, Nov. 30, 2020. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean watchers are weighing in on ramifications of the regime’s extreme response to COVID-19, as it has suspended all travel by land, sea and air and shut down public facilities.

Leader Kim Jong-un issued the highest alert for the pandemic on Dec. 2 for the second time since February, when the new coronavirus began spreading globally.

Such extreme measures, however, would be a double blow to North Korea, which suffered reduced food production this year due to shrinking outside supplies and typhoons that ravaged key farmland, experts told The Korea Herald.

“Renewed starving and deprivation will simply prompt more people to try and flee,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said the food crisis will accompany a “self-inflicted” economic depression.

“Kim Jong-un is now facing the greatest threat to the Kim family regime since the collapse of Soviet aid in the 1990s,” Kazianis said.

From 1994 to 1998, Pyongyang suffered massive starvation that left as many as 3.5 million people there dead.

The regime’s loss of Soviet Union support and mismanagement of its economy were considered main factors, with floods and droughts worsening the crisis.

“A rise of individualism is likely to undermine the regime’s ability to control each and every aspect of life,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

North Koreans will rely more on themselves and their families for survival, as they did during the prolonged famine in the late 1990s, Scarlatoiu added.

Robertson of Human Rights Watch, however, cast doubt over Kim’s grip on power being challenged, as the leader still commands great fear with the population.

Meanwhile, some experts have pointed out Kim was employing the lockdown to do more than just keep the coronavirus at bay.

“It is a bet on short-term pain for long-term gain by cracking down on actors seen as disloyal to the Kim regime ahead of the 8th Workers’ Party Congress,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Kim, anxious to demonstrate some form of economic success in the runup to the January congress, executed a currency trader in late November, blaming him for the local currency’s steep gains against the US dollar that had been unprecedented in years.

Experts said the lockdown would in no way prevent Kim from opening the congress where he promised to roll out a new economic initiative, because even pushing it back a few days could unsettle his people.

“That would be the last thing Kim needs now. He’ll draw them closer but insulate himself from blame -- at least the bigger chunk of it,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.

“By a combination of affection and empathy, he would appeal to their emotion while chastising his aides for all things gone wrong,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“That’s as long as he still finds his back against the wall next year.”

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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