North Korea’s already tenuous economic lifelines to the outside world are now nearly severed as it seals its borders with China and Russia to prevent the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus.
Already one of the most closed-off nations in the world, North Korea has stopped flights and train services with its neighbors, established weeks-long mandatory quarantines for foreigners, suspended international tourism and imposed a near-complete lockdown on cross-border travel.
The shutdowns could hurt North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s efforts to make good on his promise to jump-start the economy. Those efforts have been undermined by a lack of progress in denuclearization talks with the US, which has led the way in imposing international sanctions on Pyongyang.
“They’re keeping the cargo out and they’re keeping the Chinese out; nobody can go in or out,” a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation at the China-North Korea border said.
Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who reports for the Daily NK Web site, confirmed that the border appears to have been almost entirely shut down since at least Thursday last week.
“The [North Korean] Ministry of People’s Armed Forces ordered all guard posts to bar smuggling as well,” she said. “People, freight, nothing can come in or go out.”
Pyongyang has reportedly asked Beijing not to repatriate North Korean defectors detained in China, said a South Korean pastor who works with refugees.
North Koreans who work in restaurants and elsewhere in China, contravening UN sanctions, are in “virtual captivity” in their homes under instructions from the authorities in Pyongyang, the border source said.
North Korea is typically adept at implementing public health interventions, and acted “swiftly and decisively” to try to stop the coronavirus from entering the nation, but sanctions restrictions could make it difficult to get medical supplies, said Harvard Medical School’s Park Kee, who has worked on healthcare projects in the nation.
“Their actions, very costly in terms of revenue from tourists and trade, as well as administratively for quarantining people, reflect their concerns regarding their health system’s capacity to handle an outbreak,” Park said.
The efforts — which appear to have been successful in preventing any cases in North Korea so far — mean Pyongyang has severed or drastically restricted the economic ties it relies on.
“There could be a huge impact, not just on the North’s market economy, but also on the entire economy of the country,” Kang said. “North Korea promotes localization, but even for products — candies, crackers or clothing — manufactured in the country, the raw materials come from China.”
Upcoming North Korean political holidays, which usually include gifts of sweets and crackers for children, could be less festive than usual if the nation’s supplies of sugar, flour and other ingredients are scarce, she said.
There are already signs that prevention measures could lead to the cancelation of military parades and other mass celebrations at least until the end of this month, which include a commemoration of the army and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday.
The extent of the economic risk to North Korea largely depends on the duration of the lockdown and how sweeping the restrictions are, said Artyom Lukin, deputy director for research at Far Eastern Federal University’s School of Regional and International Studies in Vladivostok, Russia.
“If the lockdown continues for several months and longer, this will certainly have a considerable negative impact on North Korea,” Lukin said.
There are no official numbers on the size of North Korea’s economy, but the Bank of Korea in Seoul estimates that in 2018 the nation’s economy shrank for a second straight year, while its international trade fell 48.4 percent.
The crisis could weaken North Korea’s position in its standoff with the US over denuclearization talks, and could lead Pyongyang to try to offset its greater economic vulnerability by making provocative moves, such as resuming long-range missile launches or nuclear tests, Lukin said.
“If the coronavirus situation is not resolved quickly, it is going to make life much more difficult for North Korea in 2020,” he said.
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