Seoul, South Korea ( Associated Press) — In more than a decade as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un has made “self-reliance” his governing linchpin, avoiding international aid and fixing his battered economy. Trying to do at home strategies instead.
But as a disease suspected of having COVID-19 sickens thousands of his people, Kim stands at a critical crossroads: either swallow his pride and seek foreign help to fight the disease, or go it alone, Bear the potentially heavy death that may lead to the weak.
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“Kim Jong Un is in a dilemma, a really big dilemma,” said Professor Lim Eul-chul from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “If it accepts US or Western aid, it could shake the stance of self-reliance that it has firmly maintained and weaken public confidence.”
However, doing nothing can be catastrophic.
Since admitting a COVID-19 outbreak last week, North Korea has said “an explosively spreading fever” has killed 56 people and sickened nearly 1.5 million others. Outside observers suspect that most of those cases were caused by the coronavirus.
Whatever North Korea’s state-controlled media says about sick people, the outbreak is likely to multiply. North Korea lacks adequate COVID-19 tests, and experts say it is reducing deaths significantly to avoid potential public unrest that could hurt Kim politically.
Some observers say the death toll is low in a country where most of the 26 million people have not been vaccinated and medicine is in short supply.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, said there was apparently little information on the North’s deaths to defend Kim’s right as he faces the “first and biggest crisis” of his decade of rule.
The North Korean outbreak may be linked to a massive military parade in Pyongyang in late April that Kim organized to present new weapons and loyalist troops. Thousands of soldiers and residents from across the country participated in the parade. After the incident, Kim spent several days taking dozens of commemorative group photos with parade participants, all of whom were without masks. Most of the photos involved dozens or even hundreds of people.
North Korea may be able to publicly hide the actual number of deaths, but the country’s strong restrictions on movement and quarantine rules could harm its agricultural farming. Its economy has already been battered by border closures and other restrictions due to the pandemic for more than two years.
Professor Yang Moo-jin of the Seoul University of North Korean Studies said North Korea is also concerned about shortages of medical supplies and food and daily necessities, which have dried up in markets during border closures.
“They are experiencing another ‘tough march,'” Yang said, referring to the state’s euphemism for the devastating famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands.
Kim previously rejected millions of doses of vaccines offered by the United Nations-backed COVAX distribution program. After the North admitted to the outbreak, South Koreans and China offered to send vaccines, medicine and other medical supplies to North Korea. The United States said it supports international aid efforts, although it has no current plans to share its vaccine supplies with the North.
Receiving outside help will put the North, who despite its poverty, is always extremely proud, in a difficult position. Kim had repeatedly described his country as “impervious” to the pandemic during the past two years. On Saturday, however, he said his country was facing “a major upheaval” and officials should study how China, his country’s only major ally, and other countries have handled the pandemic.
Nam, the professor, said Kim would eventually like to receive Chinese aid shipments, but not from South Korea, the United States or COVAX.
“What North Korea calls a US imperialist and aided by South Korea in containing the ‘Great Upheaval’ will not be tolerated because it is against the dignity of its supreme leader,” he said.
And North Korea will only accept Chinese aid if it is done in an informal, unpublished manner, because it is “a matter of national pride,” said Seo Yu-seok, an analyst at the Seoul-based Institute for North Korean Studies. He said China is likely to agree as it sees the aid shipment as a way to strengthen ties with a partner as it faces the West.
But Cho Han Bum, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said North Korea may be looking to South Korea for support as it questions the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines. He said South Korean shipments to the Korean land border would also intensify.
Experts are divided on what support North Korea needs most. Some called for sending 60 million to 70 million vaccine doses to their people to be vaccinated multiple times. Others say it is too late to send such a large quantity, and that North Korea is in need of more fever reducers, test kits, masks and other daily necessities.
Because stopping a virus from spreading through the country’s illiterate population is already unrealistic, it should aim to provide a limited supply of vaccines to reduce deaths in high-risk groups, including the elderly and people with existing medical conditions, Jung J- Hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University in South Korea.
“Combating COVID-19 requires broad national capacity, including the ability to test, treat and vaccinate people with vaccines,” Jung said. “The problem cannot be solved if the outside world helps with only one or two of those elements.”