North Korea Should Not Repeat the 1990s Famine Response

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Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

North Korea claims there is not a single case of COVID-19 in the entire country. This story raises more anxiety than serenity.

North Korea claims there is not a single case of COVID-19 in the entire country. This story raises more anxiety than serenity.

North Korea shares a border with China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated. North Koreans heavily depend on trading goods and services with China in order to make a living, especially in border towns. Considering the proximity between the two countries and recent trade activities, it’s impossible to accept the news of zero confirmed cases in North Korea without feeling skeptical.  

During his press briefing last week, General Robert Abrams, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said he suspects the COVID-19 has already spread across North Korea. In contrast to popular suspicions, North Korea boasts of its ability to stop the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. According to NKNEWS, North Korean authorities released 1,710 people from quarantine, expressing confidence and claiming that their “super-special” measures against COVID-19 have worked well.

When the great famine broke out in the 1990s, the North Korean regime initially rejected or declined all international humanitarian aid. The North Korean government did not want to publicly acknowledge that their socialist paradise had failed. Consequently, up to three million people died from hunger.

It is my greatest hope that North Korean authorities will not make the same mistake in their response to COVID-19. Unlike the famine, COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Transparency is not a policy option; it’s imperative. Disclosing presumptive cases of COVID-19 will not humiliate the regime. The rest of the world is also struggling, including South Korea and the United States.

Furthermore, the lack of transparency from the country only raises more doubts about the nature of the regime. It is not a secret that North Korea does not have strong public health security and infrastructure.

Tae-il Shim, a North Korean refugee now living in South Korea, says hospitals lack sufficient electricity to perform even basic surgeries. During the interview with NKNews, Shim said, “Since there’s a lack of medical equipment and medicine in North Korean hospitals, patients must get together everything required to treat them themselves.”

Research from the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) shows North Korea has been struggling to fight tuberculosis nationwide. Needless to say, COVID-19 will add additional instability and health security challenges. 

Unlike the famine in the 1990s, COVID-19 will affect people of all social statuses in North Korea.  If the regime does not respond appropriately, not only will the North Korean citizens suffer again, but also the elites of Pyongyang and Kim Jong-Un’s family.

It would be Kim Jong-Un’s best interest to start treating the people of North Korea with dignity and justice. That is not only morally the right thing to do, but also a practical policy choice for the regime. The Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative Senior Fellow Dr. Victor Cha articulates this point further in his latest report, Regaining Lost Ground in the North Korean Human Right Movement: “A deal with North Korea is not possible without an improvement in the human condition.”