North Korea says that it completely blocked its border city of Gaeseong starting July 24. On July 26, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency announced that a runaway who had defected to South Korea three years ago returned to Gaeseong on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line. The news agency also said that the man was suspected of having been infected with COVID-19, so the country sealed off the city and declared a state of emergency. Here is political commentator Choi Young-il with more.
The man in his 20s, identified by his surname Kim, fled to South Korea three years ago by swimming to the small island of Gyodong on the northwestern side of Ganghwa Island. He resettled in South Korea and lived in the Gimpo region for three years.
On July 18th, at around 2 AM, he arrived at Wolgot in Ganghwa Island by taxi. The area was in close proximity of barbed wire fences on the inter-Korean border. According to the military authorities, the man is assumed to have crossed into North Korea by swimming through the drainage system under the fences. The drainage system leads to a Han River estuary to the West Sea and he is believed to have swum about four kilometers before reaching North Korean shores. A bag was found near the area where he left the taxi, containing his personal items.
Some North Korean defectors escaped to South Korea but later return to the North. North Korea has unveiled such “voluntary” returnees several times before in the form of media reports. This time around, it is notable that North Korean reports have focused more on his suspected COVID-19 infection than his return.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened an extended emergency Politburo meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party on July 25. During the conference, North Korea raised its state emergency quarantine system to the highest level and issued a top-class alert. Attention turns to why Pyongyang announced massive anti-viral measures after the defector returned to the North.
Previously, North Korea used defectors who failed to resettle in South Korea and came back to the North as a means of criticizing South Korean society. But this time, the media is not focusing on the returnee himself. Rather, their reports are mostly about inconclusive results produced from his tests. They indicate that he is suspected of having COVID-19, which North Korea calls “a malicious virus.” The media announced that the nation enforced a complete lockdown on Gaeseong to prevent the virus from spreading. They focus on the possibility that the man from South Korea may have carried the virus with him. These reports are entirely different from previous ones that dealt with defectors who chose to return to North Korea.
It is unclear whether or not this man surnamed Kim is really infected with COVID-19. In South Korea, he was not categorized as an infected person and he had no link to any confirmed patients. Officials also carried out tests on two people who had frequent contact with him, but both of them tested negative for the virus. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the defector had the virus while he was in South Korea.
Nevertheless, North Korea stresses the possibility of the man spreading the virus inside the country, creating a sense of crisis. Up until now, North Korea has claimed not to have had a single case of COVID-19. Analysts say that the North is using this occasion as a way to blame South Korea for the spread of the virus on its soil.
North Korea’s medical infrastructure and quarantine systems are not adequate enough to cope with COVID-19. If the virus has already spread throughout the country, North Korea badly needs medical assistance from the South. But for now, it cannot just come forward to ask for help. If the highly contagious disease is spreading in Gaeseong due to a person from South Korea, as they claim, the North may find an excuse to ask Seoul to take responsibility by providing necessary medical and quarantine aid.
North Korea has not responded to the Seoul government’s proposals for cross-border exchanges and cooperation so far. But if the North shifts the responsibility of the COVID-19 outbreak onto South Korea, it can justify receiving Seoul’s aid in quarantine and healthcare areas.
During a confirmation hearing on July 23, South Korean Unification Minister nominee Lee In-young said that humanitarian issues related to “eating, suffering and things that people want to see before they die” should be addressed for any case, separate from political issues. The remarks indicate that the South Korean government puts top priority on humanitarian aid for North Korea when resuming cross-border cooperation. Some experts predict that North Korea will figure out the Seoul government’s position and indirectly ask for inter-Korean healthcare cooperation.
South Korea has recently organized a new lineup of the diplomatic and security team. I imagine the South is willing to provide humanitarian aid to the North, as long as Pyongyang asks for it on the occasion of the defector incident.
With the deadlock in North Korea-U.S. relations drawn out, South Korea hopes to find a way to resume inter-Korean cooperation first. Humanitarian assistance might be a good example. As we know, South Korea has been leading the world in the prevention and control of the COVID-19 pandemic. If North Korea asks the South to conduct quarantine cooperation, Seoul could use healthcare aid as strong leverage to turn the situation around in inter-Korean relations.
North Korea seems to be using the defector incident to tighten its control over the military and people. The North pointed out the loose guard performance in the frontline area, where the runaway escaped to South Korea three years ago, saying that those responsible will be punished. Some experts say that North Korea has put the nation on a “maximum emergency system” for political purposes, rather than for quarantine efforts. North Korean people have suffered economic hardships as a result of prolonged international sanctions. In this already difficult situation, it is speculated that they have been increasingly discontent with the regime. This is due to the shrinking trade between North Korea and China and their foreign currency earnings decreasing in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. North Korean authorities seem to be attempting to divert people’s attention from internal difficulties by placing the blame on a returnee from South Korea, while strengthening discipline in society.
North Korea may use the returnee issue only to criticize South Korea and not agree on inter-Korean cooperation. By “bashing” South Korea, the North may ease public unrest and discontent triggered by protracted economic difficulties and COVID-19 prevention measures. Pyongyang may claim that it has carried out quarantine measures successfully so far, but the “malicious virus” is spreading all because of a person from South Korea. That is, North Korea may exploit the latest incident for political purposes by provoking local residents’ emotions. This may divert public anger to outside forces for a short time. But it will only end up being a stopgap measure, not resolving the urgent problems in a comprehensive way.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said that the nation’s security and future were permanently guaranteed, thanks to its self-defensive nuclear deterrent. He made the remarks at a veteran’s event in Pyongyang on July 27, which marked the 67th anniversary of the 1953 Korean War armistice. It seems the leader justifies his nation’s possession of nuclear weapons and its commitment to enhancing defense capabilities.
Domestically, the leader seems to be seeking to strengthen internal solidarity and elicit people’s loyalty by stressing that North Korea is a strong country. Externally, he is delivering a message to the U.S.
North Korea marks July 27 as “Victory Day,” claiming that it won the war against the U.S. In the message, the North shows that it is alive and well, and will continue to protect itself from the threats of the U.S., the world’s superpower. It also implies that it will never give up on its nuclear weapons development in order to secure self-defense war deterrence.
Using the recent defector issue, North Korea may possibly report its first officially confirmed case of the virus to WHO and ask for assistance from the international community. With the South Korean government making full preparations for North Korean aid, we’ll have to carefully watch how North Korea will act down the road.