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Pyongyang hunkers down to explore next move


North Korea becoming more reclusive by limiting info outflow, foreign access

By Nam Hyun-woo

With its most recent missile launches further agitating the international community, North Korea is becoming even more reclusive, maintaining its border closure and severing diplomatic ties with Malaysia.

North Korea analysts say a series of recent moves hint at Pyongyang's growing efforts to limit information outflow and international access to the regime in order to prepare for its next moves against the ongoing international pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime.

The United Nations last month said the world body had no international staff left in North Korea, after the two last remaining World Food Programme staff left Pyongyang in late March.

This is attributable to the COVID-19 situation in North Korea, with U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric saying staffers traveled home to visit their families and they are expected to return to the North as soon as Pyongyang's pandemic-related border closure is lifted.

North Korea has been claiming it is COVID-19-free. Unlike other countries that sought vaccines or treatments, the North opted to quarantine itself, shutting down its borders to prevent overseas travel, which also affected diplomats and international workers for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the regime.

John Everard, former U.K. ambassador to North Korea, said in his recent op-ed for South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo that all NGOs that have been operating in the North for the past two decades have left the country due to enhanced anti-pandemic measures or supply shortages, and the staffs of the Czech Republic, Nigerian and Pakistani embassies also left Pyongyang as of March 18, with only 13 embassies operating with minimum manpower.

The sun rises behind the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge, which spans the Yalu River between China and North Korea, as seen from the Chinese city of Dandong in this Feb. 22, 2019 photo. AFP-Yonhap
The sun rises behind the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge, which spans the Yalu River between China and North Korea, as seen from the Chinese city of Dandong in this Feb. 22, 2019 photo. AFP-Yonhap

Along with the border shutdown, North Korea's trade has been in lockdown.

"As the North retains strong preventive measures, its overseas trade has been suspended virtually," an official at Seoul's Ministry of Unification said. "The trade log between North Korea and China in January and February showed that electricity export, which does not require human or material exchanges, accounts for nearly all bilateral trade."

According to a report from China's General Administration of Customs, trade between North Korea and China from January to February stood at $3.27 million, $3.24 million of which was electricity mostly exported by the North to China. As most of the North's import of raw materials and food ingredients is from China or Russia, this means the regime is sealing off the borders despite hefty burdens on its public livelihood, the official said.

North Korea watchers said Pyongyang's reclusive actions are not just the outcome of the efforts to contain the coronavirus, but a tactic to handle its diplomatic situation down the road.

"For now, North Korea is hunkering down and limiting any and all information it can," Harry Kazianis, senior director at the U.S.-based think tank Center for the National Interest, told The Korea Times.

"North Korea knows, at least for now, that it will not be able to fully vaccinate its population from COVID-19 nor gain any sort of sanctions relief from the U.S. or its allies anytime soon. What the regime is doing is whatever it can to keep any information outflows to as limited as possible while it plots its next moves forward," Kazianis said. "The Kim family knows the next year will be very hard as likely international pressure will mount as the Joe Biden administration will surely increase pressure and sanctions on the regime."

North Korea's recent move to sever its 48-year-old diplomatic ties with Malaysia is another event showing the country is isolating itself from the global community while exploring its next moves. The nominal reason for this move was Malaysia's extradition of a North Korean businessman, Mun Chol-myong, to the U.S. to face charges of money laundering, but experts said this also should be interpreted in a broader context of Pyongyang's strategic isolation.

"The ultimate goal of the Kim regime is self-sufficiency," said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

"With its economic situation remaining difficult due to sanctions and the pandemic, the North appears to be using a tactic of strengthening its isolation by limiting information influx or outflow to stabilize its system. As long as the regime is keeping its relations with China strong, such as getting food aid for seasonal famine, North Korea seems not to be expecting anything from South Korea, the U.S. or even other countries, thus allowing it to be more reclusive while testing its capability to stay afloat on its own."

As Shin said, the North seems to be easing its control on its borders with China. Another unification ministry official said Thursday that multiple events indicating North Korea is easing control on its borders with China have been observed, though it is hard to anticipate whether Pyongyang will actually lift border closures.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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