Kim Jong Un and the Complex Chapter of Covid-19 Measures in North Korea

In order to understand another’s perspective we often say ─put yourself in his/her shoes ─but we are not putting ourselves in Kim Jong Un’s shoes when North Korea announced their difficulty over Covid-19 crisis on May 12 for the first time, as many across the world are naively ingesting whatever North Korean news outlets are saying. Understanding the enemy’s mindset is common technique for the intelligence community as “a Red Hat analysis” and therefore it is necessary to think from Kim Jong Un’s shoes (perspective).  

Kim Jong Un’s “Great Turmoil”

The North Korean news outlet (i.e. KCNA, Meari/메아리) has never been credited as a fine media in the standard of journalism because they are a communist state-run media that has embellished North Korea for ages. It ranked 180th out of 180 countries for freedom of press according to RSF(Reporters Without Borders) media index in 2022; all words from North Korea are strictly calibrated by the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (UFD/통일전선부). Despite North Korea’s unsound media reliability, the world is still paying attention to North Korea’s state-run media regarding their Covid-19 measures because they are the only source to the hermit kingdom.

Among these naïve accepters, there is South Korea’s new administration which took office on May 10 and came up with the quick response of aiding North Korea with Covid vaccines and medicines. Nobody will blame such support in the name of humanitarian contribution but some experts lift their brows over North Korea’s sudden signaling for help.

A professor of John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Courtland Robinson who studied North Korean public health for 20 years said in an interview with Voice of America, “Why are they signaling a (Covid) crisis? If they really think they can handle it, then either let them handle it, but why would they publicize this? Right? And that gets into all the questions about is this real… I’m laughing, but it’s just tragic.”

We must assess the situation with extra care and not forget the fact that North Korea has revived all provocation options from SRBMs, SLBMs, to ICBMs in 2022 and is ready to ignite the fuse to its 7th nuclear test at the Punggye-ri site. All this,─while Kim Jong Un emphasized the current Covid situation in North Korea as─in great turmoil (건국이래 대동란/大動亂).

North Korea’s Two Faces

We must also remember North Korea’s inhumane killing of a South Korean civil servant in September 2020. North Korean naval soldiers captured a South Korean civil servant near NLL, a maritime borderline between the two Koreas, and shot him at sea. Citing, Covid-19 quarantine concerns at that time, his body was then burnt. The new president Yoon Seok-yeol promised to reveal to the victim’s family the entire documents link to the tragic incident, prohibited under the Moon Jae-in administration. South Korea never received an official apology or compensation from North Korea regarding the death of South Korean civil servant and the explosion of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office which also happened in the same year, 2020.

North Korea’s tactic is akin to ‘Carrot and Stick (화전양면전술 和戰兩面戰術)’ or ‘carrying fire in one hand and water in the other’ but unfortunately nearly none of the experts are thinking twice about the current North Korean Covid dynamics and have welcomed Seoul’s decision to aid Pyongyang. North Korea is yet to respond to South Korea’s decision to offer Covid aid at the border office. This is not the first time such an offer has been made by Seoul to Pyongyang. Many do not remember the Moon administration’s offer to North Korea in 2021. Lee In-young, a Minister of Unification under the Moon administration, sent ₩10 billion KRW ($7,830,000 USD) worth of Covid aid to North Korea but North Korea did not respond and said no word at that time. This only proves that Pyongyang’s concern is not about the humanitarian aid but rather strategic maneuvers to conquer the higher ground in dealing with South Korea. We have seen this Pyongyang’s tactic too many times that we have lost count, namely the outcome of the Hanoi Summit in late February 2019. When Donald Trump walked out of the table without any tangible results, North Korea returned to low-key provocation in April 16,2019, though many Korea watcher in the West did not count this provocation because they failed to track this news due to North Korea’s careful word choice of a fire test (사격시험) rather than a launch test (발사시험).

In 2014, North Korea had sent three high officials ─Hwang Pyong-so (황병서), Kim Yang-gon (김양건), and Choe Ryong-hae (최룡해)─to South Korea’s Incheon Asian Games in October 4. Both Koreas shared and agreed on the need for peace talks between the two sides but North Korean navy ship trespassed in the South Korean seas and fired naval artilleries that South Korean navy responded to the incident on October 7, 2014. It took only three days for North Korea to change its stance from the peace to brawl. Despite the deplorable incident, both Koreas continued the talks in November but as we have all seen that no progress was ever made and North Korea remained as it is.

In Kim Jong Un’s shoes: a legitimate purge

So, we must question Kim Jong Un’s Covid outcry to the world. As a matter of fact, North Korea is currently following the same pattern as China in recent weeks. This already led to the containment for major cities in North Korea and cut down their sources to its people. By doing so, North Korea can accumulate its sources for targeted assets ─especially the military─ and prepare something for the near future along with Russia and China. Shortly after their Covid-19 outcry, North Korea mobilized countless number of troops everywhere and such movement can be a military deception like Putin’s force movements before the Ukraine war.

This will give Kim Jong Un a few new opportunities and let him breach the barriers of sanctions. One such opportunity for Kim is a legitimate purge in the name of Covid 19. Of the previously mentioned three high officials who visited South Korea in 2014, only Choe Ryong-hae is still alive.

When I interviewed K.T. McFarland, a Deputy National Security Advisor to Donald Trump a few years ago in Seoul, she shared some untold stories regarding President Trump’s ‘mind game’ behind the US-DPRK summit. She told me that Trump gave Kim Jong Un legitimacy as a global leader. Kim was attracted by this and Trump used it against Kim as a leverage along with sanctions. Simply put, Trump let Kim Jong Un chase a ghost dream to become a global leader.

Since then Kim Jong Un faced the new dilemma of ‘no more purge’ for his cabinet members, especially those who visited other countries along with Kim because a global leader cannot kill someone easily or make them disappear. After Kim’s appearance on the global stage, there was some positive sentiment toward Kim and Kim was undoubtedly aware of this.  

Kim Yong-chol, a close cabinet member to Kim Jong Un visited Seoul and Washington on behalf of North Korea prior to the US-DPRK and Inter-Korea Summits but Kim Jong Un blamed all the failures on Kim Yong-chol after the Hanoi withdrawal. South Korean media and many North Korea experts expected a purge on Kim Yong-chol at that time but he later reappeared on the stage. Despite expectations to the contrary, he was alive after all. Kim Jong Un is the same man who killed his uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 and assassinated his half-brother Kim Jong-nam in 2017 but he left Kim Yong-chol alone after 2018.

Since 2021, North Korea has seen a party reshuffle with promotions for some and the entry of new members. Many of them appeared at the military parade on April 26: Thae Hyong-chol, Ri Chol-man, O Il-jong, Jong Sang-hak, Pak Jong-gun, Ri Il-hwan, and many more. There was also one young lady in the 30s who was spotted along with other cabinet members for the first time too. If new elites rise, old ones have to go away and the Covid-19 crisis in North Korea has given Kim Jong Un a legitimate reason to purge them. After all, no one can blame Kim Jong Un for natural Covid-19 deaths.

Coincidently, two high officials to Kim Jong Il have already died due to Covid-19. Yang Hyong-sop died on May 13 at age 96 while ─Hyon Chol-hae died on May 20 at age 87. Both have been through all the twists and turns of Kim family. The duo aided Kim Il-sung, and Kim Jong Il. Ironically, Hyon was known to have supported Kim Jong-chul (older brother of Kim Jong Un) as the next heir of North Korea over Kim Jong Un when Kim Jong Il was alive. If Kim Jong Un wants to kill these seniors, he had to come up with a legitimate reason that nobody can question. Accordingly, he even participated in their grand funerals in Pyongyang.  

Kim Jong Un’s shoes: a legitimate supply

Another opportunity is the surge of external aid to North Korea. It is natural to help those who are in danger and nobody will deny such humanitarian aid to Pyongyang.

Shortly after North Korea publicized their Covid crisis, China sent 10 medical members to Pyongyang but nobody knows whether these members are doctors or Xi’s secret special envoys. It was the first such visit after reopening of border between North Korea and China in early 2020. While North Korea did not respond to South Korea’s Covid offer, North Korea welcomed China’s Covid aid. These streams of assets to Pyongyang are now unofficially approved by the world and nobody will look upon them with suspicion but we must think again by standing in Kim Jong Un’s shoes.

A case in point is Covid vaccines. Nearly all Covid vaccines require certain temperature conditions for their storage. North Korea has no proper power infrastructure and not enough refrigerators in their hospitals. As a result, many of these Covid vaccines shipments are being accompanied by generators. Here, we are already seeing ─ a dual use item like generator being openly sent ─ to North Korea and do not forget the fact that these generators will not go to North Korea with empty gas tanks. North Korea can use this gas supply for their missiles and military too. North Korea has a record of cunningly snatching 338,737kg (339 ton) of petroleum from South Korea via the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in 2019 which was later caught by the United Nations Panel of Experts before North Korea destroyed the building in 2020. The Moon Jae-in administration at that time denied the UN’s claim of supplying oil to the North. We need to ask how many dual-use items and technologies will go into North Korea in the name of humanitarian support?

Visegrad 4 in Asia for the regional challenges

Consequently, whatever North Korea is saying always requires double check to avoid any troubles. People automatically tend to think based on their past experience which creates the fallacy of mirror-imaging. Kim Jong Un in the mirror is not you and no one ever be like Kim Jong Un. When there is a crisis in the house, family members bolster to pass through the difficulty together; importantly, South Korea, Japan and the US is blamed for their “great turmoil.” This will tighten their solidarity to fight back which Kim Jong Un emphasized in his speech on April 26. Kim’s message was strictly conditional: “if our fundamental interest is attacked by whomever, we have our pro forma reason to use nuclear power against others (어떤 세력이든 우리 국가의 근본 이익을 침탈하려 든다면 우리 핵 무력은 의외의 자기의 둘째가는 사명을 결단코 결행하지 않을 수 없을 것).” Therefore, if Kim Jong Un avers that the great turmoil was created by those others then Pyongyang can push the nuclear button. When Kim Jong Un delivered the speech, he was wearing military attire for the first time. In this parade, he promoted himself to a Grand Marshal (Generalissimo) so he was wearing a white military suit. Such developments need to be taken.

If we want to end this drama with a happy ending, Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo should unite and dismantle upcoming challenges. The Russians are already primed to make the US look bad for creating NATO-like initiative in Northeast Asia but this is not the game of ‘look-good’ but the game of ‘survive-good.’ Ukraine is already in the game of survival and the Scandinavians are joining the NATO. So it is instinctive to unite like NATO elsewhere.

Especially for South Korea, if historic relations with Japan is holding it back for the regional initiative, it can come up with an unofficial bond between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo like the Visegrad 4 between Poland, Hungary, Czech, and Slovakia. The official framework can come later.  

Additionally, South Korea has funded International Visegrad Fund (IVF) since the Park Geun-hye administration. Seoul can expand its contribution to fund NATO’s security commitment in Europe against Russia.