COVID-19 in North Korea: A Mirror into the Soul of the South

By | March 19, 2020 | No Comments

Image in Rodong Sinmun on March 17 highlighting the importance of disinfecting public spaces. | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Once again, North Korea is punching above its weight in the world, as the question of whether or not the country is facing an outbreak of COVID-19 consumes a small but growing number of column inches. In a new essay, Robert Lauler contributes to this trend, but does so with a twist, exploring not the state of play in the North itself, but what it can tell us about politics in the South. – Christopher Green, Senior Editor

COVID-19 in North Korea: A Mirror into the Soul of the South

by Robert Lauler

South Korea is being rightly praised the world over for combatting back the coronavirus, but some in the country have raised questions about the South’s response to the spread of coronavirus in North Korea. North Korea still maintains that no infections have occurred, despite suspicious actions on its part and even reports of coronavirus cases in the country. Some South Korean observers in the country’s conservative media have accused South Korea’s National Intelligence Service of taking a flatfooted response to reports of coronavirus outbreaks in North Korea, seemingly parroting North Korean state media while appearing unable to confirm any specific cases of infection in the country during a recent briefing at the country’s National Assembly. As you might expect, these criticisms draw on broader frustration toward the Moon Jae-in administration’s policies toward North Korea.

It is no secret that the Moon administration has bent over backwards to improve relations with North Korea. Moon has taken extraordinary lengths to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on multiple occasions and has even sold South Korea as a “mediator” to cox the US and North Korea to the negotiation table. The main thrust of Moon’s efforts has focused on creating the conditions for peace on the peninsula that can bring about unification, which he has described as something that could, at any moment, “fall from the sky.” Amid Moon’s attempts to create these peaceful conditions, however, his administration has faced criticism for how it deals with national security issues, largely based on its attempts to woo North Korea.

To be sure, Moon is no progressive in the mold of past administrations like the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, both of whom have also faced sometimes unfair characterizations by South Korea’s conservative media. South Korea’s electorate has grown far more conservative than in the past, particularly among the young. Moon has had to display both openness to dialogue with North Korea while ensuring he remains a strong national security leader – a difficult balance. Perhaps that balance is impossible to achieve, at least in the eyes of some in South Korea’s polarized political sphere, whose most serious divides tend to center around North Korea policy.

Conservative media outlets such as Chosun Ilbo have pointed out that Moon’s policies toward North Korea are too soft toward a regime that appears unwilling to rid itself of nukes, while his new plan for the military (National Defense 2.0) has also been criticized for being too weak. Even the Moon administration’s handling of the Gimusa scandal, which led to the dismantling of that military organization, has been pilloried by the conservative press for showing “weakness” on national security. Conservative pundits have also raised concern of the domination by undonggwon figures in the Blue House, the worry being that these polarizing figures will exert too much influence on government policy and leave South Korea exposed to North Korean machinations. Moon has also been accused of mounting a silencing campaign against North Korean human rights organizations – akin to accusations hurled against Kim Dae-jung when his government tried to “silence” defectors – lest their criticism of North Korea’s human rights record upset South Korea’s northern neighbor during talks.

Some of these concerns, of course, can be dismissed as exaggerations by conservative pundits. Taken in a broader context, Moon’s political actions may not even compare with those taken by his predecessors, namely Park Geun-hye, who seemed hellbent in reviving past anti-communist discourse and was involved in several high-profile corruption cases that ultimately led to her downfall. Importantly, Park also failed to create new traction in inter-Korean relations. But Moon’s attempts to silence or at least downplay opposition has barred any political compromise from taking place; instead, it has created a toxic political atmosphere that appears to emulate the unsavory actions of his predecessors. As Christopher Green has written, “the downplaying or diminishing of right-wing voices at home and abroad, has replaced it in the era of President Moon Jae-in….That’s the problem with pendulums; they won’t stay still.” In short, Moon’s efforts to silence or ignore valid criticism of his administration’s policies can only lead to more toxicity in the political sphere, not less. 

And the lack of diversity of opinions in the Blue House’s North Korea policy is particularly worrisome. The influx of the undonggwon (1980s activist left) into South Korea’s executive branch, as conservative media have shrilly pointed out, has led to a situation where North Korea is in the pilot’s seat. Indeed, the full charge the Moon administration has made to improve ties with North Korea has, at times, found itself heavily exposed to criticism for naivety in dealing with North Korea. This is evidenced by North Korea’s temper tantrums, lukewarm interest in inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation, and, perhaps most spectacularly, shooting off artillery after signing a military agreement to avoid such provocations. While Moon supporters rush to urge patience in dealing with such a difficult partner, many have questioned whether South Korea is really in the driver’s seat, as it claims to be. It’s not hard to discern the fact that North Korea’s leadership clearly has concerns that trump simply focusing on “harmony” between the two Koreas. Indeed, the Blue House appears to want exchanges and cooperation with North Korea more than North Korea itself wants them.

Perhaps most troublesome is that Moon has backed himself into a corner regarding North Korean human rights, which has put his administration at odds with the international community and many international rights groups, many of which have vocally criticized Moon’s human rights policies. Kim Jong-un, the leader of a severely underdeveloped country that perpetrates systematic human rights abuse worthy of a UN Commission of Inquiry – a body typically created to explore atrocities in war-torn parts of the world such as Sudan or Syria – has seemingly gotten a free pass from his southern counterpart. The Moon administration, for example, has kept the country’s human rights ambassador to North Korea – a position created in 2016 – vacant for almost the past three years. Moon supporters suggest that human rights can be dealt with “down the line,” but as B.R. Myers has pointed out, “If the South is already unwilling to criticize the North…it’s hardly likely to mount a strong defense of human rights later on.” Moon’s approach to bring about peace risks simply brushing human rights concerns under the carpet for the greater good – a terrible precedent, particularly given Moon’s own experience as a human rights lawyer in South Korea’s own fight for democracy against an authoritarian regime.

The condemnation levelled on the Blue House by critics of its North Korea policies will only grow shriller in 2020. The Moon administration seems more and more willing to “go it alone” to bring about harmony between the two Koreas at all costs, particularly given the breakdown in US-DPRK talks. With just two years left in his term as president, Moon still faces many obstacles vis-à-vis North Korea. Indeed, as a recent article in The Diplomat noted, “there is a real possibility that Moon’s term will end on an anti-climactic note and this could explain why the administration has doubled down on the Korean peace process.” Despite the Moon administration’s desire for engagement, North Korea has continued to harshly criticize Moon and his administration into the New Year. Moon, remarkably, has stayed the course and shown a restrained response these harsh criticisms – presumably in the interest of protecting his hard-won friendship with Kim Jong-un.

The Moon administration’s efforts to avoid angering North Korea likely explains its low-key response to the spread of coronavirus in North Korea – no doubt a sensitive issue on the part of North Korean leaders, who want to show the world and their people the invincibility of the regime. While much of the reporting on coronavirus cases in North Korea face scrutiny due to the nature of their sourcing, experts the world over have expressed near certainty that outbreaks of the virus have occurred and will spread given the well-documented nature of North Korea’s poor medical infrastructure. Already, South Korea’s reserved response to the potential of an outbreak in North Korea has created an opening for some in South Korea to express doubts that outbreaks have even taken place in the country. This is unfortunate and only serves to underline Moon’s “carefree” approach to North Korea. The outbreak of the coronavirus may, indeed, become the ending point of greater cooperation between the two Koreas for the time being, as some have argued but, in reality, the two Koreas were arguably never really that close to full-throated cooperation and friendship in the first place. The Moon administration’s strategy to engage with North Korea – which has ignored the country’s human rights violations and downplayed denuclearization – ensured that real issues that exist between the two countries would never get discussed.

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