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The Extreme Cost of North Korean Security

It must be said with any discussion regarding North Korea, there is often a shortage if not a lack of information. Sources are often unverified, and the current incentive structure rewards extreme accounts. 

I have attempted to source data from newsgroups that enjoy institutional credibility to the best of my ability. However, this is not a complete solution, for they often must cite individual accounts or the un-verified story. For this reason, I have been liberal with citations and tried to find common themes. Often discarding pieces because of a concern for its veracity or there not being a corroborating source to look at. 

The Extreme Cost of North Korean Security

The late winter of 2019 was a time of testing. For the Nations of the world, it was one of the most trying times that many of their leaders had ever faced. North Korea, or the DPRK, was no exception, and its response has become a modern political work in abstract art. Distasteful. Extreme; akin to a child playing in political and economic matters. North Korea’s response to Covid-19 was too extreme and led to them paying higher economic and political costs than they would have otherwise. The DPRK closed its border with China in response to Covid-19, stating that it was an issue of national survival. The fear was a valid one. North Koreans are more vulnerable to the virus by all accounts than any other population. Unfortunately, the chance of all positive cases being excluded was low. Plus, other diseases and viruses have crossed the Sino-Korean border with similar measures in place when we look at situations like the Swine Flu, among others. The data is still coming in but from economic and political metrics. It did not work. One of the clearest metrics to look at is that of the nation’s economic health. 

With the limited data available, all signs indicate that severe restriction in the flow of goods and services both into and within North Korea has dramatically negatively affected the nation’s economy. In July, it was noted that in the first six months of the year there had been an 84% reduction in trade with China. This is hardly good for China, especially considering that one of North Korea’s largest exports is coal, China would find itself running short later in the fall of 2021. It is even worse for its smaller neighbor though. North Korea has been under sanctions, of one form or another, since 2003 – the time of its first nuclear test. During this time, it has found its northern neighbor to always be a willing trade partner. Allowing the Hermit Kingdom to procure items that were not available or that could not be manufactured in-country. In turn, North Korea would often provide basic goods in exchange for these items. With cessation of trade, North Korea is faced with severe shortages in basic food staples, medicine, and cooking oil, while also suffering a decrease in purchasing power through inflation according to sources within North Korea.  Traders selling private goods are forced to sell at below-market costs destroying wealth and disincentivizing the suppliers. Inflation and the other economic costs North Korea has endured will lead to little more than a debased currency and an impoverished population.

Evidence shows that the State has imposed severe restrictions on movement within. According to Silberstein, from the Stimson Institute, when looking at the before and afters of the lockdown, there are extreme price differences between cities within North Korea This is partly explained by people hoarding, thereby reducing supply and driving price up. Implications for which tell a disturbing tale of North Korea’s view of the closed border versus sanctions – there is little evidence to support such hoarding activity in the market when sanctions are initiated. The dramatic hike in prices indicates supply chains are disrupted as they persist beyond what one would expect, indicating some sort of delay or a restriction on travel, which is entirely plausible considering the situation. Since the release of this data, prices have corrected to some extent attributed to the black market and price controls. Accounts of extreme shortages are still coming out of the nation, pointing to continued disruptions with no end in sight.

Conflicting accounts have been released stating that North Koreans will be in lockdown until 2025, with other sources saying that restrictions will be lifted within the next few weeks. Silberstein argues that both accounts could be true at the same time. For the everyday North Korean, the border will likely remain closed for months, if not years. For the Elites and government groups, it very well could open. Either way, it has always been a goal of the Hermit Kingdom to be as self-sufficient as possible. As with any society where extreme stratification occurs, what happens for one group is not always the same for a second group. North Korean leadership will likely use the current crisis to achieve long-standing political goals. The question must be asked, though: is the economic and political cost worth it? 

North Korea is not without allies in the region. China has used the international concern of famine within North Korea to try and lift UN sanctions. Since 2003, North Korea’s sanctions have only gotten progressively worse. Starting out primarily as a tool to prevent purchasing military supplies and select luxury goods, the UN and the USA would levy heavier and heavier sanctions over the next two decades. The US adopted the stance that to do business with North Korea was to choose not to do business with the USA. Though it has been selectively enforced. 

China has used the international communities concern for NK as a way to argue for the easing of many of the EU’s sanctions. The only issue is that UN sanctions do not stop humanitarian aid. It appears to be a properly Machiavellian tactic to remove the stigma associated with having a close trade relationship with North Korea. China has only one good friend in the international political scene, herself. So, while lifting sanctions would benefit North Korea, they would allow China to continue to play both sides of the case with greater ease. 

From all appearances, the North Korean economy is struggling, and it is unlikely to change as they continue to embrace severe restrictions in trade and limit humanitarian aid. On multiple occasions this year, Kim Jong Un has shared that the North Korean economy is not doing well. The perhaps most telling is a comparison by NK’s leader of the modern trials that NK is facing to the hardships faced during the Korean War. DPRK has seen powerful combinations of weather-related crop failures, sanctions, and a struggling economy coming together before with devastating effects for the common Korean found in the DPRK. With the closed border and shortages already in place. North Korea is struggling to address the issue. Perhaps illustrative of this is the story of black swans being raised for meat on state farms. Touted as a triumphant affair. This appears to be political grandstanding as it presents this challenge as an innovation.  

Works/Sources Cited

(2021, November 4). N. Korea in final preparations to reopen border with China: official. Yonhap News Agency.

Yong, J. S. (2021, November 4). N. Korean Cabinet calls on commercial sector to eradicate the “import disease”. Daily NK.

(2021, November 4). Just a moment….

(2020, February 14). Inside N. Korea Tension Mounts as Regime Regulates Markets, Confiscates Stocks, and Slanders Price Gouging Shopkeepers. RIMJIN-GANG.

(2021, January 5). N.Korea’s Kim tells party congress economic plan failed ‘tremendously’. Reuters.

(2021, November 4). Just a moment….

Albert, E. (2019, July 16). What to Know About Sanctions on North Korea. Council on Foreign Relations. 

Ng, T. (2021, August 7). China highlights North Korean food crisis with call to lift UN sanctions. South China Morning Post.

Power, J. (2021, August 1). Kim Jong-un hints at hardships, stoking fears of famines return amid North Koreas pandemic isolation. South China Morning Post.

Shin, Hyonhee. (2021, January 19). N.Korea’s trade with China plunges 80% as COVID-19 lockdown bites. Reuters.

Snyder, S. A. (2020, March 6). North Koreas Coronavirus Quarantine: More Effective Than Sanctions. Council on Foreign Relations.

Thomas-Greenfield, w. L. (2018, May 24). Cognitive Bias and Diplomacy with North Korea. Council on Foreign Relations.

Watanabe, S. (2021, July 18). North Korean trade with China continues to shrink, dropping 84%.

Zwirko, C. (2021, October 27). Black swan meat now on the menu in North Korea as food supply problems persist | NK News. NK News – North Korea News.