Nuclear weapons vs. Covid
The author is the director of the Institute of the National Future Strategy at Seoul National University.
As of Tuesday, the number of suspected of Covid-19 cases in North Korea reached 3 million. According to Worldometer, it is the 38th highest number in the world. However, the number of deaths is very low at 68, ranking 195th in the world. It is only 1 percent of Denmark’s deaths, which had similar number of confirmed cases.
The trend of suspected cases is clearly different from patterns in other countries. The “doubling” of confirmed cases over a certain period of time is not detected, with the cases surging from 10,000 to 390,000 in three days. Also, the number of daily cases dropped to less than half from the peak only in a week. In short, it is exceptional. It may be due to technical challenges, such as a lack of diagnostic equipment, but it is also possible that the statistics are intentionally distorted.
The number most likely to have been distorted is the number of deaths. When Omicron variant spread, the fatality rate in Hong Kong was 0.71 percent. Applying this factor to the number of aggregated fever cases in North Korea yields 21,000 deaths. If half of the North Korean population were infected, it could be estimated that 90,000 people would die.
However, unlike Hong Kong, North Koreans have not been vaccinated and have poor nutrition, and the country has poor medical infrastructure and lacks medicines. Still, 12 percent of the population is classified as having suspected case of the coronavirus, and the current number of deaths is fewer than 70. The number of deaths by age shows that the proportion of the elderly is very low. The number of elderly deaths from Covid-19 doesn’t seem to be counted properly, or it was deliberately under-reported.
Kim Jong-un is also injecting the spirit of self-reliance into statistics. While he defined the Covid crisis as “the most serious turmoil since the founding of the country,” he emphasized that the crisis can be overcome in the shortest time possible if party and people have unity and faith.
In North Korea, if the leader stresses mental control rather than science, statistics needs to be fortified with an ideology of self-reliance. Officials who instinctively understand this would not want to report the cause of deaths for the elderly as Covid-19. To be flexible, they seem to prefer taking temperature rather than using an accurate diagnostic kit. Ordinary North Koreans are likely to be suffering severely from lack of proper medical treatment as medicines, which are already short, are being stolen or hoarded. The number of residents who die without receiving proper treatment and don’t get the cause of death identified correctly seem to be much higher than the statistics.
The “nuclear sword” that was supposed to protect North Korea is becoming a dagger harming its own people. By refusing assistance from South Korea and the international community, lives, which are far more valuable than nuclear weapons, are at risk. Regardless of the number of deaths announced, how can they avoid the deaths caused by Omicron, which the world has already witnessed? That’s not all. Due to international sanctions and the Covid crisis, the average annual economic growth rate of North Korea from 2017 to 2022 is estimated to be -3 to -4 percent. If the pre-sanction average annual growth rate was 2 percent under Kim Jong-un leadership, it means the economy has had 5 to 6 percent negative growth after the sanctions. Considering North Korea’s gross domestic product, it is recording a loss of more than 1 trillion won in every year due to nuclear development. Then, has North Korea’s security situation improved? On the contrary, the South Korea-U.S. alliance was even strengthened because of the North Korea’s nuclear program. The financial statements of North Korea’s nuclear development are accumulating only debts rather than profits. It is practically in a state of capital impairment.
Kim Jong-un wants to develop North Korea into a normal state. However, achieving a normal state with nuclear possession is only a dream, as proven in the experience of the past seven years. How can a country be a normal state if it cannot release Covid-19 statistics correctly because of the nuclear program? Once the Covid pandemic ends and North Korea-China trade resumes, its economy could have a little room to breathe. But the normal state that Kim dreams of cannot be attained without being incorporated into the global economy and accepting investment. The goal is unachievable with the North Korea-China trade alone. Moreover, is it desirable for North Korea’s future to be completely dependent on China for its economy as well as politics?