A student has her temperature taken as part of anti Covid-19 procedures before entering the Pyongyang Secondary School No. 1 in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 22, 2021.
A student has her temperature taken as part of anti Covid-19 procedures before entering the Pyongyang Secondary School No. 1 in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 22, 2021.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea’s coronavirus lockdown has taken a major toll on its economy. Its leader, Kim Jong Un, has hinted at a humanitarian crisis. Some fear the situation could get much worse.

North Korea may be the only nation to claim it is COVID-19-free. But even it now admits a worsening pandemic-related crisis.

Last week, Kim Jong Un vaguely warned of a mysterious “grave incident” suggesting a major coronavirus lapse. He also recently acknowledged food shortages, comparing the situation to a devastating 1990s famine.

Robert Lauler is with the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news outlet with sources in North Korea.

“There’s worries that there will be another ‘Arduous March’ type of situation," he said.

The “Arduous March” refers to the period of mass starvation during the rule of Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, which may have killed millions.

It’s impossible to say how bad the situation is now. There are no signs of mass starvation. But Lauler said the prices of food and certain luxury items from China have skyrocketed amid North Korea’s toughest-in-the-world lockdown.

“People are hurting because of the closure of the border, because of the poor harvest last year, because their movements are restricted. People, and particularly in the border region with China, aren’t able to conduct their business activities, official or not official,” he said.

Despite the crisis, North Korea isn’t showing urgency on coronavirus vaccines. VOA has learned Pyongyang hasn’t even completed all the paperwork to get vaccines from COVAX, a U.N. backed vaccine-sharing initiative aimed at assisting low- and middle-income countries.

Staff of the Pyongyang Primary School No. 4 spray disinfectant in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 30, 2021.

It’s not clear North Korea has vaccines from anywhere else, either, puzzling observers like Yang Moo-jin.

Yang said he says he doesn’t know why North Korea has refused vaccines, adding North Korea isn’t known to have any particular aversion to vaccines, like some do in the West.

North Korea’s basic predicament is that it wants to keep the border closed to protect from the virus but must open it to get vaccines.

It’s a situation that may not threaten Kim’s rule but will get riskier the longer it lasts.