On December 5, 2020, during the IISS Manama Dialogue (a security summit held in Bahrain), South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that her government had “offered help to North Korea” but had so far received no response. She also added that it was hard to believe Pyongyang’s claims about not having any COVID-19 cases in the country, and that the North Korean leadership had “turned toward more top-down decision making” due to increased isolation of the nation on account of the pandemic. “All signs are that the regime is very intensely focused on controlling the disease that they say they don’t have, so it’s a bit of an odd situation,” the Minister stated.
In response to Kang Kyung-wha’s comments, on December 9, 2020, the First Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong released a statement, which said: “It can be seen from the reckless remarks made by Kang Kyung-wha without any consideration of the consequences that she is too eager to further chill the frozen relations between the north and south of Korea. We will remember her outbursts forever and she might have to pay dearly for them.”
During her December 17 interview with the US TV news channel CNN, Kang Kyung-wha once again expressed doubts about North Korea’s claims that there were no COVID-19 cases in the country. The ROK Foreign Minister also said that even in nations that had closed down very quickly, the novel Coronavirus had got in and spread.
There were a number of articles in South Korean media outlets regarding this recent spat that offered explanations as to why Kim Yo-jong reacted so negatively towards the Minister’s comments. These reports suggested the DPRK was in a deep-seated crisis and the sharp words uttered by the leader’s sister proved that the North was “struggling with dire economic difficulties.” They also said that the “regime’s visceral response” to Kang Kyung-wha’s statements could “stem from the fact that it was Kim Jong-un himself who proclaimed the ‘zero cases’ theory in a speech.” And since the supreme leader is viewed as “infallible on every account”, the Foreign Minister’s reservations about his claim “might have been perceived as a slight by Pyongyang.”
In the author’s opinion, however, it is far more interesting to discuss why Kang Kyung-wha made the aforementioned deceptive comments twice already and not why North Korean leader’s sister reacted so negatively in response. Despite all of these anti-Pyongyang reports that often rely on anonymous and far from reliable sources, there is no evidence at present that the novel Coronavirus has spread to the DPRK. In fact, a WHO official in North Korea has periodically released data about the number of individuals placed under quarantine in the nation, but there have been no reports about local transmission of the virus. Russian and Chinese diplomats with their own networks of contacts in the DPRK have also been unable to confirm that an outbreak has indeed occurred in the country. In addition, indirect evidence suggests there is no COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea. For instance, although the North chose not to cooperate with the ROK on Coronavirus-related issues, if there had indeed been an outbreak, Pyongyang would have tried to obtain, via unofficial channels, medical equipment, first and foremost ventilators and not necessarily test kits. In addition, construction of new hospitals or even temporary quarantine facilities would have been captured on satellite images by now. Incidentally, the new Pyongyang General Hospital, which was supposed to be ready in time for the anniversary celebrations of the Workers’ Party of Korea, is still not open. Furthermore, Kang Kyung-wha’s statements about COVID-19 spread in the DPRK were general in nature, she did not provide any specific examples, which indicates there is no backing to her claims.
Another point is also worth mentioning. In ROK Foreign Minister’s opinion, the fact that Pyongyang has taken such costly measures against the novel Coronavirus although there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country is an odd situation. The author thinks that Kang Kyung-wha’s comments reflect her own incompetence, as she implied there was no point in such preventative steps and it only made sense to deal with a problem once it had arisen.
From the author’s point of view, the issue is that while North Korea appears to have contained the spread of the novel Coronavirus, the ROK is grappling with its third wave, whose impact far exceeds that of a military flare up. In South Korea, COVID-19 cases recorded per day during the winter-spring outbreak peaked at under 900, in contrast, starting from December 10, 2020, the number of daily infections exceeded 1,000 on several days. In fact, only a month before the latest wave, the ROK President reiterated that the battle against COVID-19 was almost over and that the nation’s anti-virus campaign “K-quarantine” could become as popular abroad as K-pop had.
In addition, there was more bad news at the beginning of December when the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) “rebutted allegations that it blocked South Korea’s attempt to send antiviral medication” to the DPRK the previous year.
The story garnered quite a bit of attention because at first, the South Korean government claimed that it had “tried to send 200,000 doses of Tamiflu to the North in early 2019 as a follow-up on an agreement between their leaders to closely cooperate in fighting the spread of infectious diseases.” However, in the end, the drugs were not delivered to the DPRK.
ROK officials said that “the influenza medication could not be delivered as the UNC blocked the movement of trucks across the border.” But as it turned out, the shipment was not a priority for Seoul. “The fact remains that UNC rapidly approved Military Demarcation Line (MDL) crossings for the delivery of Tamiflu,” the United Nations Command said in a statement. It “gave the green light to the shipment one day after South Korea filed the request and renewed the approval every day until Seoul notified the command of its cancellation of requests to cross the MDL” on February 1, 2019. This incident shows that South Korea’s equally highly touted offer to cooperate on pandemic-related issues, which Pyongyang has so far declined, could face a similar fate.
It is worth remembering that Kang Kyung-wha was and still is Moon Jae-in’s appointee, who became South Korea’s Foreign Minister despite attempts by members of the parliament to block her nomination. She is also one of few people to remain in her ministerial post since the current President came to power.
Hence, it is quite sensible of Kang Kyung-wha to divert the attention of the public from her own problems to made up ones. These latest developments remind the author of an apt saying “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” The ROK Foreign Minister really needs to clear all the beams out of her own eyes before they end up on the funeral pyre under Moon Jae-in’s administration.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.