North Korea’s COVID curbs still strangling economy, report says

Tightened border controls introduced to curb COVID-19 are still strangling North Korea’s economic activity and informal trade networks more than 18 months after leader Kim Jong Un declared victory over the pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

North Korea was one of the first countries to act on reports of COVID-19 circulating in early 2020, sealing itself off from the outside world and its economic lifeline in China.

As Pyongyang suspended freight shipments from China for two years, authorities also beefed up border barriers to prevent any movement between the countries – going as far as issuing a shoot to kill order for people and animals to prevent them from spreading COVID-19.

Satellite photos of six locations on the China-North Korea border show that fencing was expanded to cover 321 kilometres in 2023, up from 230 kilometres before the pandemic, HRW said in a report released on Thursday.

Existing fences were also updated to include more watchtowers, guard posts, and secondary and tertiary layers of fencing, the rights group said.

Since then, heightened border security has made it nearly impossible for North Koreans to leave, with the number of defectors dropping sharply from 1,047 in 2019 to a low of 63 in 2021, and then 196 last year, the report said.

“The government’s persistent drive to control its population, overbroad and prolonged responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and expanded nuclear weapons capabilities, have combined with the intensifying external pressures of UN Security Council sanctions to turn North Korea – already effectively a country-wide prison – into an even more repressive and isolated state,” the report said.

As authorities ramped up border patrols during the pandemic, officials also cracked down on bribery that since the late 1990s had allowed North Koreans to evade government restrictions on daily life to the extent they could enjoy some freedom of movement and buy goods at formal and informal markets, according to HRW.

“Almost all” cross-border movement of people and formal and informal commercial trade has stopped since the pandemic began, the report said, citing interviews with 16 North Korean defectors who were in contact with family or informal brokers and smugglers still in the country.

“Informal traders can only get small packages that they can carry easily in their hands or hide in their body,” Lee Kwang Baek, director of the Unification Media Group, a Seoul-based NGO that broadcasts news to North Korea, said in the report.

The new security measures have made civilians afraid to even approach border regions for fear they could be shot, according to testimony from a former North Korean trader quoted in the report.

“My [relative] said there were no words to describe how hard life was. There was no [informal] trade with China, not even to get some rice or a bag of wheat. If [authorities] heard of a soldier allowing that, that person would just disappear,” the trade said in the report. “Soldiers are very scared … My [relative] said people in [her area] said there is not even an ant crossing the border.”

North Korean authorities have also started cracking down on jangmadang, or informal markets, which had been tolerated to supplement people’s daily needs following a catastrophic famine in the 1990s, the breakdown of the government rationing system, and continuing international sanctions, according to the report.

Officials have imposed tougher punishments from forced labour to capital punishment for “distributing imported products that don’t have official trading certificates and conducting economic activity in streets or places without permits,” HRW said.

The rights watchdog said it had received reports of authorities clamping down on “foreign culture, copying South Korean slang, hairstyles, and clothes”.

Young people found to have watched or distributed the Netflix Series Squid Game and South Korean films have been sentenced to hard labour or even executed, according to defectors cited in the report.

Before the pandemic, a study by the United States-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recorded 436 officially sanctioned markets spread across rural and urban North Korea that provided access to food, medical supplies, and contraband films and music.

Often run by married women looking to supplement low wages earned by other family members, the markets earned the government an estimated $56.8m per year in taxes and fees, according to CSIS estimates.

Peter Ward, a research fellow at the South Korea-based Sejong Institute who was not involved in the report, said that North Korea has yet to move on from COVID like other countries have.

“When we talk about post-COVID in the West, South Korea, Japan, we’re talking about 2022 when things start to normalise. North Korea’s normalisation has been delayed a lot and arguably they haven’t really finished normalisation yet,” Ward told Al Jazeera.

“The black market… is partially supplied by cross border smugglers and smuggling networks, and these networks are substantially damaged by COVID-era lockdowns and border controls,” Ward added.

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