Kim Jong-un lifted the lockdown in Pyongyang last Sunday. At least that’s what the NKNews website, which specializes in North Korea, and the Yonhap news agency – both based in the South Korean capital Seoul – report, citing conspiratorial information from the capital. There are no official confirmations for this yet.
Getting unofficial confirmations from Western circles in Pyongyang has become practically impossible, because apart from a few staff members from former Eastern Bloc countries, from China or Iran, there are no longer any diplomats or other foreigners in North Korea.
However, NKNews has always proven to be reliable. Another website specializing in North Korea, DailyNK*, reports that the curfew in the city of Hyesan in the north of the country had been eased a few days earlier. Overall, the strict lockdown in North Korea lasted just under two and a half weeks – a fact that, according to DailyNK, is smugly commented on by Internet users in China with its month-long curfews.
Kim justifies the easing with – how could it be otherwise in his country – an impending “victory” over the “epidemic”. All key figures, the new so-called “fever cases” – behind which all corona infections can be suspected – as well as the new official corona cases have been falling sharply since last weekend, according to the regime.
The absolute number of sick people is still alarmingly high. Pyongyang remains at the top with 709,678 “fever cases” and 42 confirmed corona cases, followed by the neighboring province of South Pyongan with 353,903 “fever cases” and 36 confirmed corona cases. According to the regime, only six of the country’s ten provinces have confirmed infections. These are all in the south or south-west. The north (i.e. almost the entire part of the country bordering China) is already corona-free.
Nevertheless, the epidemic map is a problem for Kim Jong-un – for two reasons. First, in the capital Pyongyang and in the supposedly completely corona-free northern province of Ryanggang, people died in double digits from the dubious “fever”, ten each.
Ryanggang is home to the posh resort of Samjiyon, one of two alpine holiday destinations for privileged capitals. Next comes the province, which includes the Masikryong ski resort and the holiday beach resorts of State Security, the Interior Ministry and other key departments, south of the port city of Wonsan.
All other provinces report no or at most one to three “fever” deaths. This reinforces the impression that the corona outbreak is an illness of the regime elite, for whose recovery the entire country must now be responsible.
The second reason is even more uncomfortable for Kim, because if it’s true, the North Koreans could say: Only one person is to blame for the lockdown, for the whole corona outbreak – Kim Jong-un himself.
According to information from DailyNK, North Korean authorities have identified the cause of the corona outbreak in mid-May. Patient zero was therefore a foreign trade official who is said to have contracted omicron while controlling Chinese imports at the border with neighboring China – or his nephew, who was infected when the official returned to Pyongyang.
He is a student at the foreign trade university and passed the virus on to fellow students there. On April 25, the Dandong border region went into strict lockdown due to an omicron eruption.
On the same day, a gigantic military parade was held in Pyongyang in honor of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The infected nephew and his fellow students were there. A few days later, after another parade, Kim received students and pupils – the nephew of the foreign trade official was also here and is said to have even been very close to the great Kim during a photo shoot.
The students were then given special leave and traveled to surrounding provinces – a privilege only enjoyed by the upper state elite. When the authorities finally noticed that the travelers were distributing the Omicron variant in the country, all the red lights in Pyongyang went on.
Not only public health was threatened, but also the security of the regime, and that in two ways. For one thing, the country would experience a mass epidemic due to a lack of vaccines and testing capacity, which would give the lie to all regime propaganda. On the other hand, the country would be leaderless if Kim and his close circle all became incapacitated at the same time with severe symptoms.
So a lockdown was needed, immediately. But this would only work if you gave up the fiction of a corona-free North Korea. According to the analysis of those responsible, a lockdown without valid justification could arouse resistance.
At least that is the description of the informant or informants who are said to have contacted the DailyNK. Can she be right? An indication of this could be Kim’s accusation that the authorities had made a “serious error”. Kim had raised it at a special Politburo meeting when the lockdown was imposed. Indeed, not detecting or not reporting an infection in parade helpers in a timely manner would have been an omission.
If the version is correct, it can of course be said that Kim Jong-un was not responsible for the student’s infection. But because Kim wanted to have his military parade on April 25 at all costs, even though he had only held one six months earlier, in early October – that’s why the virus spread, only because of this military bravado that an official’s nephew could get sick have such consequences.
When it became clear that the virus had spread at a meeting of officials that followed shortly thereafter – Kim and his entourage are said not to have been affected – a rush began. The Politburo, which normally meets about every six months, now met almost every week. Kim had to get the plague under control immediately, and get it under his personal control in order to preserve the regime’s sovereignty of interpretation and action.
The lifting of the lockdown and the announcement of the partial victory on Sunday is a stage on this path. It remains to be seen whether the population believes the numbers and whether they are even remotely correct. North Korea observers have already noted that the total number of all North Korean “fever” and corona cases given by the regime and the figures disseminated by the regime for the individual provinces do not match.
*DailyNK is a Seoul-based media outlet founded by North Korean refugees, but not affiliated with the local government. editor