North Korea started off the year on a strong note by holding a large military parade as well as reaffirming the country’s commitment to self-reliance. But behind the tough façade, the country is still trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 within its borders. The pandemic has not gone away for the rest of the world, and North Korea is no exception. 

North Korea was one of the first countries in the world to take the pandemic very seriously; closing off its borders back in January of 2020. Given that the virus had originated just across its borders in China, the North Korean government wasted no time in implementing drastic security measures. Although this prevented an uncontrollable spread of the virus within the country, the negative economic impact has been immense, and—contrary to official statements—North Korean citizens do seem to have been infected with the virus throughout the course of the pandemic. 

According to Daily NK sources, North Korean health officials have been enforcing strict social distancing measures for a long time now. For instance, North Hamgyong Province remains under strict lockdown conditions, despite the government’s claims of zero infections. The situation is so serious that the authorities have prohibited the sale of homemade food at local markets as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, according to a Daily NK source. 

Parts of Chagang Province have also been locked down, according to a local source. Earlier this month, authorities issued lockdown orders for two towns after incidents of smuggling and defection were uncovered there. 

Moreover, other Daily NK sources have also reported on lockdowns being enforced in the cities of Hyesan and Samjiyon in Yanggang Province. “Locals now cannot leave their homes or even move,” one source said. 

Due to lockdowns throughout the country, many people are unable to make a living. According to one North Korean businessman, market opening times have been reduced and people are no longer able to visit the market every day, to prevent the gathering of too many people. Restrictions on market activity have been in place since last April and continue to affect the daily lives of citizens. 

The situation seems to be particularly dire in the city of Hyesan. According to a recent report by AsiaPress, the city has been under lockdown since January 29 and has become a ghost town, with people reportedly struggling to survive. Local residents are only able to get food through the neighborhood “resident organizations” but even they are running out of food to sell. 

“We have no medicine, no food, and no firewood (for heating and cooking). Even if we have money, we cannot spend it. It is almost as if the government is trying to forcibly choke the people to death,” one resident lamented. 

Despite the dire living situation of its people, the North Korean government continues to demand their cooperation for the sake of the military. 

covid quarantine
Disease control officials testing drivers for COVID-19 symptoms in Pyongyang’s Manggyongdae District. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

According to a recent report by RFA, Pyongyang is forcing citizens to contribute aid to the military, despite not having enough to eat themselves. 

“The party is prioritizing pork, rabbit, chicken and duck to contribute to the soldiers’ diet. They are also required to provide other foods, and even have to give daily necessities like cotton gloves, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap,” a source in North Korea told RFA.

With North Korea currently facing one of its worst economic slumps in decades, discontent is growing among the people. “[The people] ask how the government can continue to pass its own responsibilities onto them,” an RFA source said. 

The North Korean government has made it clear that nothing—not even a global pandemic— will hinder its efforts at continuously strengthening its military and expanding its weapons programs. This was made clear during the country’s Eighth Party Congress last month as well as through two massive military parades held in the past four months, during which various new weapons were revealed. 

Currently, North Korean soldiers are holding their usual winter military training drills. The drills are expected to continue until March. Even though regular people may not have enough to eat, provisions for soldiers must continue, according to the government. 

Despite the show of strength to the outside world, regular people inside the country are suffering. The pandemic is still raging throughout the globe and there are no signs of when life could go back to normal. 

To this point, North Korean officials seem to be taking action to reduce the threat the virus poses—at least to the elites. According to the vaccine alliance Gavi, North Korea will be provided with nearly two million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through its COVAX initiative in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO). Distribution is expected to begin later this month. 

The news comes after Daily NK learned that North Korean health officials were already testing out domestically-made vaccines on people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. The “vaccine” seems to have been manufactured thanks to data obtained by hacking activities against South Korean and other foreign pharmaceutical companies. 

Although the recent news on vaccines may be welcome to those occupying powerful positions in North Korea, it means little to the millions who are struggling to survive every day. In North Korea, the military will always come first, with the rest of the population inevitably ending up last. 

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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Gabriela Bernal is a freelance writer on Korean affairs and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, South Korea.