There is private despair among Chinese diplomats following Pyongyang’s explosive provocations this week, including the destruction of the inter-liaison office with South Korea.
Pyongyang’s recalcitrance about economic and social reform has long baffled Chinese counterparts, who point to their own economic success as an example of what the country could achieve if it followed in China’s footsteps.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” one Chinese academic who has had frequent contact with North Korean diplomatic delegations said.
After nearly three weeks of international speculation about his health, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un returned to public view at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new factory on May 1. Kim is apparently “alive and well.” But … Kim’s continued power does not equate to a static situation in North Korea.
The Kim regime may focus on modernizing state institutions, or it may crack down on social trends and commerce that do not comport with the ruling party’s ideology and control of the economy. The military might make a few external provocations while quietly improving its capabilities, or it might push the envelope with further escalation. In terms of diplomacy, Pyongyang could continue to reject engagement, or it could pursue tactical cooperation for short-term gain.
Kim appears focused on domestic affairs in light of North Korea’s economic challenges. To address these, he could do more to evade sanctions, strengthen his country’s self-reliance, or both. The coronavirus pandemic further complicates matters because North Korea’s self-imposed national quarantine has nearly halted trade with China, upon which the country is extremely dependent. Indeed, the pandemic may be doing more than international sanctions to arrest economic activity across North Korea’s borders.
Kim’s reasons for choosing the Sunchon fertilizer plant’s ribbon-cutting ceremony as his occasion to reappear are unknown. But the visit suggests the importance he places on food production, particularly while the pandemic disrupts the country’s supply chain and flow of foreign currency from China.
Outsiders may not have been the only ones questioning the sustainability of Kim’s leadership while he was absent. Kim may also intensify political purges and anticorruption campaigns.
Maintaining international tensions as a means of pursuing strategic objectives remains a priority. … While a major diplomatic breakthrough with Washington is unlikely before the U.S. presidential election in November, North Korea will continue pursuing its strategic aim of perfecting a nuclear deterrent and gaining strategic advantage without triggering outright conflict.
China’s top diplomat called on the United States to ease North Korea sanctions, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un discussed strengthening nuclear deterrence, according to state media reports.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday action is more important between the United States and North Korea than “sitting down to discuss” differing points of view. Wang said Washington and Pyongyang need to take action in order to promote “mutual trust” and “overcome the deadlock.”
“In the past few years, North Korea has taken active steps to relieve tensions and denuclearize, but regrettably it has been unable to obtain a substantial response from the United States, which has led to stalled U.S.-North Korea talks,” Wang said, referring to sanctions.
China has offered to provide a mediating role between the United States and North Korea in recent years. In September at the United Nations General Assembly, Wang called on the United States and North Korea to “build trust through synchronized actions.”
“The way forward is parallel progress in denuclearization,” Wang had said last year, referring to a step-by-step denuclearization supported by Beijing.
As China placed a northeastern city on lockdown due to the novel coronavirus disease, nearby North Korea continued to claim zero instances of the infectious illness and even showed signs of opening up in some areas.
Authorities in China’s city of Shulan, Jilin province, have steadily intensified quarantine measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 after a cluster of new cases earlier this month. On Monday, city government officials announced additional measures that severely limit movement within the city.
But as China races to curb the feared outbreak in Shulan, North Korean officials reported the virus has been thwarted, just across the border.
The latest situation report published Tuesday by the World Health Organization said North Korea registered having no cases of COVID-19. North Korea is among a group of about a dozen countries around the world to have not registered any instances of a disease that has infected nearly 5 million people around the world.
Russia’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora supported North Korea’s claim by praising Pyongyang’s “decisive and tough measures” taken early on in the coronavirus crisis in an interview Wednesday with the Interfax News outlet. “I am inclined to trust what is being reported about the absence of infection in the DPRK,” Matsegora said, referring to North Korea by an acronym for its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Pyongyang was the first to institute travel bans, border closures and other strict anti-epidemic measures as reports of the virus emerged back in January.
Kim Jong-un has vanished from sight, and in doing so, he’s exposed a potentially major weakness of President Donald Trump’s negotiating tactics. Trump made a bold bet: that by breaking precedent and engaging directly with Kim, he could convince the brutal young autocrat to give up his nuclear arsenal in exchange for future economic gains.
Today U.S. officials have found it hard to even get in touch with their North Korean counterparts; in some prominent cases, they’ve been publicly scorned. Now, amid rumors that Kim is sick (or even dead), current and former U.S. officials and North Korea analysts say Trump’s mano-a-mano diplomacy looks shakier than ever because the Trump-Kim relationship has been the only one that truly mattered.
On Monday, Trump said he had a “very good idea” about Kim’s health status, hinting that the American people would be hearing about it in the “not-too-distant future.” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question, “Kim Jong Un? …I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well.”
[However] if a new leader emerges in North Korea, he (or she) may decide to grow the country’s nuclear arsenal as a way of consolidating and projecting power.
And with U.S.-Chinese relations on a downward spiral due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of international cooperation to diplomatically pressure North Korea and maintain economic sanctions on the country seems remote.
China has sent a team of doctors to North Korea to help determine supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un’s health status, Reuters reported on Friday.
Hong Kong Satellite Television went as far as reporting that Kim was dead, though there has been no confirmation from U.S. sources at this point.
“While the U.S. continues to monitor reports surrounding the health of the North Korean Supreme Leader, at this time, there is no confirmation from official channels that Kim Jong Un is deceased,” a senior Pentagon official not authorized to speak on the record told Newsweek.
Kim’s last confirmed public appearance was on April 11, at a politburo meeting, though state media also shared footage of him attending aerial assault drills the following day. It was his absence from April 15 Day of the Sun celebrations dedicated to his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, that first sparked speculation regarding his well-being.
On Monday, rumors spread that the North Korean head of state was in ill health after undergoing heart surgery on April 12, sparked by an anonymous source featured in the South Korea-based Daily NK outlet, a publication linked to a U.S. Congress-funded think tank, along with a CNN article citing an unnamed U.S. official that said Kim was in grave danger following the operation.
These rumors were subsequently discounted by U.S. intelligence, with two U.S. officials telling Newsweek on Tuesday they had no reason to think that Kim had suffered any kind of serious illness. Similarly, at the time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency cited a government official who said there was nothing unusual coming from North Korea that could suggest Kim was ill.
North Korea has called for stricter and more thorough measures against the coronavirus at a meeting presided over by its leader Kim Jong Un, state media reported, without acknowledging whether the country had reported any infections.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Sunday that the virus had created obstacles to the country’s effort in its economic construction, describing the pandemic as “a great disaster threatening the whole mankind, regardless of borders and continents”.
KCNA reassured North Korea “has been maintaining [a] very stable anti-epidemic situation” thanks to its “strict top-class emergency anti-epidemic measures … consistency and compulsoriness in the nationwide protective measures.”
Officials have previously insisted the North remains totally free of the virus.
Experts have said North Korea is particularly vulnerable to the virus because of its weak healthcare system, and defectors have accused Pyongyang of covering up an outbreak.
A joint resolution was adopted “on more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people to cope with the worldwide epidemic disease”, it said. The resolution also included goals of “continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year”.
But photos released by North Korea’s state media showed that none of the committee members who attended the meeting including Kim Jong Un was wearing a mask nor sitting far apart from each other.
[Various News Agencies]
Kim Jong Un is calling on his country to hastily build a “modern general hospital” to “better protect the precious health and safety of our people” amid growing suspicions the Hermit Kingdom isn’t being honest about the coronavirus outbreak.
State media reported Kim broke ground at the hospital construction site in Pyongyang on Tuesday as the North continues to insist it has no cases of COVID-19, despite being sandwiched between the virus hotbeds of China and South Korea.
Kim reportedly wants construction on the
hospital – which he labeled a “crucial task” — to be
completed by early October.
While North Korea continues to claim no coronavirus cases, another development suggests this isn’t the case. North Korean authorities extended school closures this week through April 15, Daily NK reports.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) expects to see Personal
Protective Equipment (PPE) shipped to North Korea this week by land from China,
the UN agency told journalists, amid ongoing efforts by international
organizations to help North Korea in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“We expect to receive a shipment of face shields, goggles, masks, gowns,
coveralls and gloves (PPE equipment) this week by land from China,” the UN
“Additional masks, gloves, and thermometers will be included in this
delivery,” it added. “This is part of our ongoing work with the World
Health Organization and other international organizations, and the government
to stop transmission of COVID-19, and to keep children and their families
Chinese authorities have told people to stay away from the
border with North Korea, which has banned people from China to keep out the
coronavirus, or risk being shot by North Korean guards, residents of the area
Residents said the warning came in a printed notice that Chinese authorities in the area issued this week, the latest indication of how seriously North Korea takes the threat of the virus.
Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people
who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who
received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters. Residents are prohibited
from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according
to the notice issued this week.
In January, North Korea told travel agencies that it was closing its borders to travelers from China, cutting off one of its few sources of external revenue. It is unclear how much trade continues, but sources who work near the border have said much of the official and unofficial trade was affected. China and North Korea share a 1,400-km (880-mile) frontier.
Activists who work with North Korean refugees trying to leave through China
said the border lockdown has made an already dangerous journey nearly
Isolated and impoverished North Korea has imposed strict entry bans during past global epidemics, including a 2014 Ebola outbreak.