North Korea has cut off what few ties to the outside world it maintained in the last two years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Starting from late January 2020, North Korea sealed off its borders, prohibiting tourists from entering and quarantining all foreigners residing in the North for a month. Furthermore, since March 2020, North Korea has witnessed a constant exodus of foreign diplomatic staff and humanitarian workers. In March 2021, the last remaining two international U.N. staff left the North, while the staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross left in December 2020. Additionally, the closure of the Romanian embassy in October 2021 marked the end of a Western presence in North Korea.
In the name of combating the pandemic, Pyongyang has essentially halted all foreign interactions, renouncing 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 capable of coping with the stress of a pandemic. However, what at first was a matter of logic escalated to the point of irrational paranoia, which we can start to understand by enlarging the scope of Richard Hofstadter’s idea of “Paranoid Style“ from individuals to a state. The leadership’s isolationist policies, coupled with goals of autarky and the fear of losing control over the country, have created a Manichaeism-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 fed into the government’s sense of frustration dictated by the inability to beat such an enemy. Frustration aggravated by internal political pressures of stability and control escalated Pyongyang’s paranoia to the point where, for instance, the central government decreed that any unauthorized trespassers crossing the border were to be fired at without warning.
Isolation, State Surveillance, and Control
North Korea had to tailor its domestic and foreign strategy to cope with the lack of direct diplomatic exchanges caused by the isolation measures. Albeit not in a 1990 famine-like predicament, North Korea has been pushed to its limits by anti-pandemic measures and had to reopen its borders to the flow of goods and materials. The latest development and relaxations in North Korea’s trade relations and law 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. The amendment of its trade laws will allow Pyongyang to control and gradually expand its trade volume with Moscow and Beijing at first while slowly increasing its confidence to reengage with international actors.
Against the backdrop of 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 promise to increase political control and surveillance was escalated by the paranoia induced by the pandemic. Fearing a loss of control over the population and the country, the Workers’ Party went above and beyond to tighten ideological control and crack down on anti-socialist practices throughout the party, the state, and the society. Similarly, the Emergency Anti-Epidemic Inspection Team was deployed to crack down on cross-border smuggling, and the leadership in Pyongyang attempted to smother all actions that disrupt anti-pandemic measures, going as far as blocking regional movement.
This increased focus on national security prompted North Korea also to reject all forms of external aid. 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 shoulder to maintain its isolationist policy. Caged into staying the course of its anti-pandemic policies, North Korea was left without its usual means to circumvent sanctions, necessary to develop the state economy and military program. The U.N. Panel of Experts reported that the only notable means North Korea had to generate revenue were cyberattacks on financial institutions and virtual currency exchanges. The constraints imposed onto North Korea by the pandemic resulted in a contraction of somewhere between 8.5 percent (according to Fitch Solutions) and 10 percent (according to the Hana Institute of Finance) in North Korea’s economy last year.
Due to pandemic paranoia and the consequent inability to rely on external assistance, North Korea appears to have concluded that military development will remain its primary means to ensure national security. The streak of missile tests conducted since the start of 2022 seems to point to Pyongyang’s decision to pursue an aggressive, maximum-pressure-like foreign policy. Notably, a report from a Politburo meeting held this January shows that North Korea has now acknowledged that a long-term confrontation with the United States is inevitable. This is a clear signal to the U.S., South Korea, and the international arena that the North will respond in kind to measures and actions that it deems hostile, such as sanctions and military exercises. Pyongyang’s 2021 focus on strengthening military capabilities will continue throughout 2022.
It is evident that pandemic paranoia has been influencing, if not dictating, North Korea’s domestic and foreign strategy. However, all the extreme measures Pyongyang has undertaken due to pandemic paranoia have been rationalized as an excuse to tighten internal control and dictate rules of engagement with the outside in full. In the upcoming months, pandemic paranoia will still dictate most of the decisions in Pyongyang. The trend of tightening internal control over private activities and black markets will continue while pro-market, reformist policies will not be advanced. Internally, Pyongyang will focus all its political and economic efforts on strengthening self-sufficiency and its military program.
A gradual relaxation of anti-pandemic and isolationist policies will take place, trade will gradually increase, and people-to-people exchanges will restart in phases at North Korea’s own pace, probably not until late 2022 or in 2023. Trade will be controlled and used to circumvent sanctions and pursue military development. Entry or exit from the country will not be permitted, unless after extensive scrutiny and only if beneficial to North Korea’s own interests.
North Korea will primarily maintain a close relationship with China and strengthen its ties to Moscow as a way to counterbalance dependence on Beijing. Despite the stymied economic ties, North Korea’s relations with Moscow and Beijing remain stable and are unlikely to change. Notably, as stated 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 contacts with other nations could have been established, caused no setbacks and was dictated simply by external shocks, namely (in the North’s telling) hostile forces’ moves and the pandemic. Good ties with China and Russia are a must for North Korea since it will not let go of its aggressive foreign policy any time soon.
North Korea will continue to show its military capabilities by test-firing more of its medium-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. North Korea might go as far as testing the newly improved version of its long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unsurprisingly, KCNA reported that the country is re-evaluating whether to restart all temporarily suspended activities, namely long-range missile tests and nuclear tests. However, testing a thermonuclear device currently seems improbable since it would cause North Korea to lose China’s and Russia’s support. China is especially sensitive toward North Korea’s nuclear program as the sanctions, unilateral or U.N.-mandated, it has imposed on Pyongyang every time the latter has tested a thermonuclear device demonstrate. Both Moscow and Beijing play a paramount role in shielding Pyongyang from further U.N. sanctions, as their refusal to sign a U.S. statement decrying the seven tests the North has conducted in January points to.
Lastly, Pyongyang’s aggressive foreign policy serves as an assurance against any possible result in the South Korean elections scheduled in 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 low, if not totally 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 hurdles – political shunning, sanctions, and other factors, such as natural disasters and COVID-19 – and continue to pursue its objectives and ensure national security.
If a progressive candidate wins, North Korea’s aggressive foreign policy might push the new South Korean president to adopt diplomacy more similar to current President Moon Jae-in, proactively seeking engagement to reduce tensions and solve the escalating inter-Korean crisis. The new government in Seoul could increase the scope and value of its concessions to bring the North back to the negotiation 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 ones, regardless of what the U.S., South Korea, or any other international actor will do. Going forward, pandemic paranoia will fizzle out, and Pyongyang will try to control the narrative of its reopening and re-engagement with the international arena even more. The leadership will utilize the pandemic and all the hardships the North had to shoulder as proof of the country’s ability to endure and develop alone, without the need for outside help. Consequently, Pyongyang will not proactively seek engagement. On the contrary, engagement will be framed as an endowment granted by North Korea to those who seek it, since Pyongyang will maintain that it is self-sufficient.