North Korea and Coronavirus: International Relations and Local Data from Dandong

By | September 21, 2021 | No Comments

Note taking at a meeting of senior party officials in August 2020 | Image: Korean Central TV

North Korea closed its border with China in January 2020, not only denying entry to people but also to goods, and as such has seen no significant outbreaks of COVID-19. China had a problem with COVID-19 early on, but now has the situation largely under control thanks to going hard and early every time an outbreak is detected — as recently occurred in Harbin — the state intervenes with extremely robust infectious disease control measures.

These are the headlines we so often hear of the two countries and their pandemic experiences. But of course, they are both caricatures — if not entirely false, then certainly not whole stories. Aiming to bring nuance via some unique COVID-19 and public health data points from Dandong, the PRC’s foremost urban center for China-North Korea trade, Adam Cathcart reviews broader bilateral and international questions around China-North Korea relations and coronavirus vaccinations. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor 

North Korea and Coronavirus: International Relations and Local Data from Dandong

by Adam Cathcart

North Korea has been engaged in a valiant struggle to prevent the coronavirus from crossing over its northern border. The consistent claim out of Pyongyang is that this has been a resounding success. Depending on what you read elsewhere, this defensive campaign has variously been undermined by Chinese travellers in Sinuiju, been assisted by the absence of the virus in some of the Chinese border counties, or been representative of a futile attempt which will expose manifold regime weaknesses even if the virus is contained.

At home, Party secretaries at the local level in North Korea have been charged with heightened vigilance and virus control measures. Kim Jong-un is using the pandemic to reaffirm and strengthen central control over the provinces and localities, since that is where any pandemic controls might go wrong. Recall the negative case of Kaesong, which was locked down in July 2020 due to a suspected case of the virus, ostensibly brought in from South Korea. Three weeks later, the lockdown was lifted and the case was never publicly confirmed. In late June 2021, speaking to the Politburo, Kim Jong Un criticized a “grave incident” related to pandemic preparedness, which appears to have involved illicit rice purchases from China by Korean People’s Army units in defiance of strict border controls.   

Korean Workers’ Party local cell secretaries listen to guidance from Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, April 2021 | Image: Chosun Central TV

Early on, North Korea even engaged in a bit of outward-facing public health diplomacy. China’s chief executive Xi Jinping expressed gratitude to Kim Jong-un for his offer of epidemic assistance, putting North Korea in an unlikely category with Japan, whose relations with Beijing were enhanced at the outset of the pandemic by the need to focus on public health over geopolitical tensions.

But when it comes to accepting assistance from abroad, the story has been different. At the beginning of this month, UNICEF indicated that North Korea rejected a large offer of Chinese-manufactured vaccines. A short analysis of that issue further indicated that North Korea’s state bureaucracy had concerns about the British Astra Zeneca vaccine’s side effects and lacked the cold storage capacity to use Pfizer or Moderna products. Pratik Jakhar, who works for BBC Monitoring, has put together a very useful summary for Foreign Policy of the state of play on the North Korean vaccination front, showing DPRK engagement with international organizations and indicating the efforts to domestically develop a COVID-19 vaccine, possibly modeling it after Chinese examples. Beyond the bounds of Sino-North Korean relations, Laura Bicker, the BBC correspondent in Seoul, looked at Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s offer of vaccines to Pyongyang — an offer which appears not yet to have been taken up.

Academics like Leif-Eric Easley (a professor in Seoul with some experience of “Track II” dialogues and an eclectic portfolio of research interests on East Asian regional security) have suggested that a US-manufactured vaccine like the Johnson & Johnson one might be a good option for North Korea given technical constraints. In May, Sue Mi Terry (a former United States CIA, NSC, and NIC official who is presently Korea Chair at CSIS) called US vaccine diplomacy one ready method to break the sanctions impasse.

But an anonymous “senior administration official” quoted in the same piece as Terry said that American vaccine aid of any description would come with “monitoring” strings. Given that even the US agreement with South Korea to cooperate on vaccination technology has run into substantial patent and market-based obstacles, it seems hard to imagine smooth US-DPRK intercourse of any sort on vaccines. Amidst a spate of North Korean missile tests, there are few indications that the Biden administration has any plans for a vaccine-led diplomatic breakthrough with Kim Jong-un.

Dandong: North Korean Workers, Pandemic Controls and an Indicative Study | In the past few months, there has been little granular discussion of COVID-19 in the Sino-North Korea borderlands that are the proverbial bread and butter of this website’s efforts. North Korea remained quiet about a January 2021 outbreak of COVID-19 in Tonghua, a city about an hour north of the Yalu River border by car, but certainly too close for comfort for any North Korean cadre in nearby Manpo — or indeed further south in Pyongyang. A reportage in May 2021 published in South China Morning Post quoted South Korean intelligence estimates that the pandemic had “stranded” some 50,000 to 70,000 North Korean workers in China, many in the river city of Dandong that is the hub of cross-border trade when the border is open. The DailyNK has further reports here and here on North Korean workers currently, or recently, in border regions of China.

Ideologically speaking, a 2017 UN Security Council resolution decreeing a total return of these workers by the end of 2019 paradoxically worked in North Korea’s favour — at least, to the extent that it was faithfully implemented. Tens of thousands of impressionable workers were presumably repatriated to the bosom of the motherland rather than absorbing pandemic-inflected Chinese capitalism for an indeterminate period. By the same token, last week Rodong Sinmun hailed the work of a battery of North Korean organizations in northeast and northern China whose remittance of funds from work in China appears to remain important.

Fengcheng Phoenix Hospital, Liaoning Province, April 2020

Not all publicly-available information about the virus in the border region — particularly from Dandong — is of the propagandistic, valiant success variety such as seen in an April 2020 celebration in nearby Fengcheng of a delegation of medical professionals returning from Wuhan (see above photo).

On 15 April 2021, the Dandong Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that the city was providing vaccines only to those between ages 18-60, and that vaccinations had not yet begun for the over-60 population (但目前我市根据重点人群新冠疫苗接种进度,暂时还未开展60岁以上人群新冠疫苗接种工作.) However, by early August 2021, Liaoning province could boast that of the 50+ million doses of vaccination administered in the province (keeping it roughly at parity, number-wise, with South Korea), over 1.7 million 12-17 year olds had been vaccinated. If vaccine hesitancy is a problem among youth in Dandong or Liaoning more broadly, the Party is doing what it can.

Cartoon by 混知健康, or “Stone Knows,” January 2021; a similar series of images by the artist was syndicated by the Dandong Center for Disease Control & Prevention on 23 April 2021.

In a July 20, 2021 press release hailing the beginning of youth vaccinations (aged 15-17) in Liaoning (我省启动12-17岁人群新冠病毒疫苗接种工作), the authors indicated a handful of problems which the neighboring North Koreans are surely also thinking about; namely, how to distribute vaccines in remote rural areas, how to combat skepticism about vaccinations, and the potential side effects for youth. However, there remains even in public messaging in Liaoning concern over the effect of Chinese vaccines on the elderly, meaning that in the same July press release, care is taken to evaluate the health condition of any given elderly person before administering any vaccine, and for systematic follow-up (“老年人接种应严格落实接种前健康问询相关要求,经医生评估符合接种条件后方可实施接种,接种后3天内做好社区随访”).

Sifting through the coronavirus news stories for Dandong further provides glimmers of what might be called “pandemic fatigue” or imperfections in the ability of the state to contain every last divergence. University graduates in Dandong are reminded that negative test results (required for employment, job interviews, or training schemes) cannot be faked.

The informational space itself remains an area of concern. One story from early August, a man travelled from Dandong to Dalian and then back. Upon his return, he went to the Zhenxing District Hospital and took a nucleaic acid test for COVID-19, which returned negative. However, in an effort to “frighten his trip companions a bit and get some attention online” [为了吓唬一下旅游同伴及博公众眼球], he altered an image of his test result to make it appear as if he had tested positive, and posted it. Having “created fabrications which disturbed public order” [虚构事实扰乱公共秩序], the man was detained by the Public Security Bureau for ten days and fined 500 yuan.

But perhaps the most revealing study of Dandong’s public health terrain — and the role of North Korean travellers in it — was published not long before the pandemic hit. It was authored by four Chinese authors, two of whom were employees of the PRC Customs Bureau. The focus was health data, and it may be the subject of more writing downstream on Sino-NK, since it shines a clearer than average and statistically-robust light on the preexisting health conditions that North Korean border-crossers were facing circa 2015-2017.

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