There’s One Reason Kim Jong Un Is Loving North Korea’s COVID Outbreak

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson / The Daily Beast / Getty

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson / The Daily Beast / Getty

SEOUL — The spread of COVID-19 in North Korea is not all bad news for leader Kim Jong Un. By locking down the entire country, they can assert the power of his regime as never before. He has the authority to arrest anyone perceived to have broken the rules for any reason, whether in the quest for food or the need to see a friend or to look for medicine.

He can also blame the scourge on a network of health officials. Their survival is now in jeopardy. Some of them, having been in contact with victims of the disease, may be ill, but all have to fear for their lives while Kim investigates how the disease broke out on a mass level. He’s calling for “correcting deviations revealed in the supply of medicines” when it’s well known North Korean medical facilities are largely bereft of medicine of any kind, much less any capable of curing COVID-19.

To show he means business, Kim fell back on a familiar wellspring of support, his 1.2-million-man armed forces over which he is the supreme commander. Pyongyang’s Korea Central News agency said they had issued an order for “immediately stabilizing the supply of medicines in Pyongyang City by involving the powerful forces of the military medical field of the People’s Army.”

Military people faced draconian punishment if they didn’t do something fast to stem a crisis over which they have no real control.

“If all leading officials do not exert themselves and display their strenuous and fighting spirit,” Kim was quoted as saying, “they cannot take the strategic initiative in the ongoing anti-epidemic war.” They “should not allow any slightest imperfection and vulnerable points by maintaining high tension and vigilance in the acute anti-epidemic war.”

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The call for marshaling the armed forces behind the campaign showed the frustration in a struggle in which they have no expertise and no authority other than the ability to carry out a purge on Kim’s behalf. KCNA put out the dispatch in English as well as Korean, indicating the need to prove Kim’s fully in charge before an international audience.



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Kim Jong Un inspects a pharmacy in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2022.

KCNA via Reuters

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Kim Jong Un inspects a pharmacy in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2022.

KCNA via Reuters

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Kim Jong Un inspects a pharmacy in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2022.

KCNA via Reuters

It’s a simple blame game and Kim — who is known for ordering the executions of anyone he suspects of working against him or his interests — will not hesitate to imprison or kill those accused of failing to wipe out the disease. He’s not saying a word about vaccinations, which he has refused from potential foreign aid-givers throughout the pandemic, and he’s certainly not accepting the assistance offered by South Korea’s newly inaugurated President Yoon Suk-yeol.

Never mind that the conservative Yoon is not tying medical aid to his demand for the North’s “complete denuclearization.” Kim also refused offers of vaccines, well before acknowledging the pandemic in his own country, from Yoon’s liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who beseeched him for dialogue and reconciliation.

“Kim cannot accept any blame because they are a party of a‘ deity, ’the Kim family regime that is infallible,” said David Maxwell, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “His deliberate policy decision-making has made the tragedy worse than it should be. They have prioritized the development of the nuclear and missile programs over the welfare of the Korean people living in the north. ”

By passing on the blame, Kim avoids all responsibility for having failed to take basic steps needed to halt the spread of the disease. He holds himself and his innermost circle above reproach while lower-ranking bureaucrats are guilty of betraying the country through their inability to prevent a disease that his regime had been claiming had not broken out anywhere within its borders.

That claim, of course, has never been credible. It’s always been impossible to imagine that Kim, by shutting down the border with China soon after the virus was reported in Wuhan in December 2019, had actually managed to keep it from getting into North Korea. He had been either in denial, refusing to believe what was happening all around him, or was carrying on a campaign of deliberate fabrication and disinformation.

Nor is it possible to believe the seemingly factual reports published by his propaganda machine, notably the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun and KCNA, that purport to state the number of deaths from the disease, the numbers stricken and the numbers cured.



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Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventive measures against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children’s Department Store in Pyongyang on March 18, 2022.

Kim Won Jin / AFP via Getty Images

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Employees spray disinfectant and wipe surfaces as part of preventive measures against the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Pyongyang Children’s Department Store in Pyongyang on March 18, 2022.

Kim Won Jin / AFP via Getty Images

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