The past year and a half has not been kind to North Korea. The country has been shaken by numerous disasters which, collectively, have taken their toll on the population. While it is impossible to know for sure to what extent North Koreans are suffering from Covid-19, the health and economic impacts of the pandemic have been significant. In the absence of a strong health care infrastructure outside of Pyongyang, there is a good chance that citizens of the North have been hit hard by the virus, despite the contrary protests. In response to the virus, the regime has locked down several cities and cut imports from China. Combined with drought, floods, and an inadequate distribution system, food shortages resulted from the Pyongyang pandemic mitigation efforts. The government has also recently cracked down on the use of foreign currency strengthen the credibility of the North Korean won by creating inflationary pressures at the worst possible time. Ideologically, the regime is leading a rearguard action against foreign pop culture through patriotic punishments and inducements, efforts that have proven counterproductive in other tense totalitarian states.
While the internal situation is “tense”, as Kim recently conceded, the international environment is currently remarkably lenient. None of the three states that most affect the security of the North wants increased tensions with Pyongyang. Still fearing a failed border state, China’s leaders continue to be a voluntary source of vital commodities. In South Korea, Moon Jae-in’s policy seeks dialogue with the North. Indeed, the Moon is likely to redouble efforts to the North as his term draws to a close. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Biden administration has adopted a prudent and balanced North Korean policy. Although Biden is considering extend existing sanctions on the diet for another year, Washington global strategy aims to progressively advance denuclearization through progressive doses of sanctions relief. This policy reflects the reality of the North nuclear deterrent and the realization that a future attempt to force the regime to disarm will fail as badly as in the past.
The international environment cannot be called benign for North Korea, but there is enough slack in the international system for the Kim regime to strengthen its position at the national level. For example, restrictions on imports and aid on food and medicine could be lifted. If the regime welcomes foreign support, it could avoid a repeat of the “Hard March”, the period of massive famine in the north from 1994 to 1998. Yet there is reason to believe that Kim Jong- one is even less likely to accept help from abroad than was his father, Kim Jong-il, in times of turmoil. Since coming to power in December 2011, Kim Jong-un has reinforced the state ideology of juche, which emphasizes the principles of self-reliance and independence in a hostile world. Accepting aid from abroad during a crisis would run counter to the state’s message of extreme self-sufficiency.
How Kim deals with these conflicting pressures will affect the lives of millions of North Korean citizens. Unfortunately for those who live in this totalitarian state, the evidence suggests that Kim redoubles his isolation, sacrifice and self-reliance. Among the regime’s targets are “extraterrestrial ideology, culture and ways of life” found abroad, the “malignant tumor which threatens the life and the future of our descendants”. Perched, it seems, is here to stay. The consequence will be a further erosion of state capacity to face the confluence of economic, biological and environmental challenges it faces.
Spencer D. Bakich is Professor of International Studies and Director of the National Security Program at the Virginia Military Institute, and Principal Investigator at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Success and Failure in Limited Warfare: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnamese, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.