When the coronavirus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, North Korea locked its borders faster and harder than virtually any other country.
For North Korea, it was a matter of necessity; the country’s fragile health care system is unable to cope with a major disease outbreak.
But nearly two years after North Korea severed almost every land, sea, and air link with the rest of the world, it still appears to have few tools other than lockdowns to fight the pandemic.
North Korea has refused offers of COVID-19 vaccines from other countries and the United Nations-backed COVAX vaccine distribution initiative. According to the World Health Organization, it is one of only two countries yet to begin vaccination campaigns (the other is Eritrea).
Instead, North Korea has not only sealed its borders, but also imposed severe domestic travel restrictions.
While most analysts doubt North Korea’s claim to have completely kept out COVID-19, they acknowledge that the early lockdown likely prevented pandemic deaths.
“It works, let’s face it. North Korea is able to seal its borders very tightly and control movement. And we know these viruses cannot infect others when they can’t move,” says Kee Park, a North Korea healthcare expert who works at the Massachusetts-based Harvard Medical School.
But as North Korea enters year three of its lockdown, signs of economic stress are emerging.
Basic food supplies, already often lacking in many parts of North Korea, are now too expensive for poorer classes to afford. Outside humanitarian aid, which plays a key role in North Korea’s economy, has been cut back.
While the situation may not be as dire as the country’s 1990s famine, the economy has taken a major hit, says Lee Sang Yong, chief editor of the Daily NK, a Seoul-based publication that maintains sources inside North Korea.
“Ordinary people now eat only two meals per day instead of three. And the ratio of rice to corn they consume is 3 to 7 instead of 7 to 3. It’s clear the economic situation is getting worse,” Lee says.
Many analysts say the situation is unsustainable. But North Korea is no stranger to defying analysts’ predictions.
“We are not sure how long they can continue and endure these kinds of difficulties,” concedes Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University. “Many people, especially so-called experts on the North Korean economy, are saying next year, probably in the first half…will be the deadline.”
There are signs that North Korea is trying to open its border to trade with China, its main economic lifeline. Satellite photos show North Korea is building several decontamination centers, presumably to facilitate imports.
But any wider opening with China may be tricky, since both countries are embracing a “zero COVID” approach, says Park.
For now, North Korea shows no signs of attempting to live with the virus. If it were to take that approach, it would likely need to accept vaccines.
As VOA reported in July, North Korea is worried about the efficacy and side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine that COVAX has allocated for the country. It is also concerned about the presence of foreign aid workers that would help facilitate a vaccine campaign.
If not vaccines, North Korea could attempt to acquire COVID-19 treatment pills, which some observers say could be particularly useful in countries that do not have access to enough vaccines.
But in a pandemic likely seen as a threat to his rule, Kim may instead feel the need to simply assert more control, which means the lockdown may continue.
“It’s not just for their people's well being,” says Park. “This is also a very daunting challenge to their own authority, to the Kim Jong Un regime. That’s why they don’t even partially open their border.”