As the sun rose on North Korea on May 12th, the tiny hermit nation announced its first COVID outbreak. For two years, they have denied any outbreaks and proclaimed a nearly perfect record for keeping out a virus that was claimed to have spread worldwide. This announcement forced their leader Kim Jong Un to publicly wear a facemask for the first time, although their transmission rates are not available at this time.
South Korea noticed just hours after the announcement that North Korea had fired three rockets into the sea. This launching marks the 16th incident of Kim lobbing rockets since 2022 began as he attempts to force South Korea and the U.S. back to the table so they can plead to have their sanctions eased. With the outbreak being made public, they may also be using it to generate sympathy in the hope of speeding up the process of negotiations.
Korean Central News Agency claimed that tests of virus samples indicated the presence of the omicron variant among the dozens of samples taken from those reporting fevers. Kim, in response, called for a lockdown of cities and counties throughout the nation. He also wanted workplaces to isolate by units in an attempt to block the virus from spreading further. He also called on healthcare workers to improve their disinfection steps at work and home.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Woman’s University and knows the situation well. “For Pyongyang to publicly admit omicron cases, the public health situation must be serious. This does not mean North Korea is suddenly going to be open to humanitarian assistance and take a more conciliatory line toward Washington and Seoul. But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile tests when the urgent threat involves coronavirus rather than a foreign military.”
While testing for nuclear missiles may not be top of the mark in Easley’s eyes, Kim certainly wasted no time. Then again, given his demasking with his generals during the meeting, it’s not likely that he’s putting military actions on the backburner during this outbreak. Instead, it seems to infections that he could be getting to the point of having nothing left to lose. If all his people die off due to omicron, he won’t have anyone to rule over, so he will do what he needs to do to keep them alive, but as the missile launches showed, he is content to ensure things continue in North Korea.
Ever since COVID was first announced, North Korea had all but completely shut its borders along with other harsh steps it called a matter of “national existence.” With no trade or border traffic, Kim theorized he could keep his country and people safe, with troops even being rumored to shoot any trespassers on sight. While there are no confirmed reports of it, when you consider how they hunt down defectors and are more than happy to shoot them as they try to escape, it would make sense for them to do it.
With their main trading partner, China, suffering a massive outbreak, it’s not surprising that North Korea finally has reported cases. They have been able to skate by without having much in the way of concerns, but the self-imposed lockdowns have left the country experiencing worse famine than usual, so they have been forced to allow for more trade than before. With the outbreak potentially coming because of that trade, they may turn to a zero-tolerance policy like China. This would not be the most advantageous for the small nation to use, but they may potentially see no other alternative as China may demand it for trade.