North Korea, fighting to hold back coronavirus and floods, rejects outside aid

The double-whammy calamities of the pandemic and floods have exacerbated North Korean leader Kim's economic troubles. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (NYTIMES) - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un says the nation is facing "two crises at the same time" - fighting the spread of the coronavirus and coping with extensive flood damage. But Mr Kim has ordered his country not to accept any international aid for fear that outside help might bring in Covid-19, the state news media reported on Friday (Aug 14).

Mr Kim, who spoke during a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party Politburo on Thursday, said that he sympathised with the "great pain" of families who had lost their homes to the floods and were living in temporary shelters.

But, he said, "the situation, in which the spread of the worldwide malignant virus has become worse, requires us not to allow any outside aid for the flood damage but shut the border tighter and carry out strict anti-epidemic work", according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

The double-whammy calamities of the pandemic and floods have exacerbated Mr Kim's economic troubles. The North's economy, already hamstrung by the sanctions imposed by the United Nations for its nuclear weapons development, has gone into a tailspin this year as fear of coronavirus infections cut deeply into its exports and imports with China, the country's primary trading partner.

An unusually long monsoon season, as well as torrential rains this month, has set off floods and landslides in both North and South Korea. But the North said the natural disaster had damaged 96,300 acres of farmland and 16,680 homes, as well as roads, embankments and rail lines. Most of the damage was reported in southern and western provinces, a bread basket for North Korea, which suffers chronic food shortages even during normal years.

North Korea has also taken drastic actions against the coronavirus, sealing its borders in late January and quarantining all diplomats in Pyongyang for a month. It locked down the border city of Kaesong last month, suspecting that a defector who crossed back over the border from South Korea had brought the virus with him.

North Korea's swift actions were driven by fears that a Covid-19 outbreak could seriously test its woefully underequipped public health system and its economy, already struggling under international sanctions, analysts said.

On Friday, however, North Korea lifted the lockdown, "based on the scientific verification and guarantee by a professional anti-epidemic organisation".

The North Korean state news media has long insisted that there are no coronavirus cases in the country, although outside experts question the claim. The North did not reveal whether the defector who crossed back from South Korea had tested positive for the virus, and officials in the South have said there is no proof that he had it.

The global pandemic and creeping flood damage come as Mr Kim failed to get UN sanctions lifted through his stalled diplomatic relations with US President Donald Trump.

By precluding outside aid, Mr Kim appeared to have denied Seoul and Washington a chance to thaw relations with the North through humanitarian shipments.

"North Korea's rejection of flood relief is ostensibly to prevent transmission of Covid-19 into the country," said Prof Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "But humanitarian assistance is heavily politicised by the Kim regime, as it does not want to show weakness to the domestic population or international rivals."

North Korea shut down business with neighbouring China, which accounts for nine-tenths of its external trade, and clamped down on smugglers who keep its thriving unofficial markets functioning. The country's exports to China, hit hard by the border shutdown, plummeted to US$27 million (S$37 million) in the first half of this year, a 75 per cent drop from a year ago, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Imports from China dropped 67 per cent, to US$380 million.

About 60 per cent of North Korea's population face food insecurity this year, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The floods and coronavirus fears have also complicated Mr Kim's plan to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party on Oct 10 with pomp and spectacle.

"We cannot make the flood-affected people celebrate the 75th anniversary of the party homeless," Mr Kim said during the Politburo meeting, urging his government to bring the lives of the people back to normal as soon as possible.

The North's leader has been visiting the flood-affected areas in recent weeks, sometimes photographed driving his own car, and has ordered the release of reserve grains for the hard-hit towns, in an apparent effort to demonstrate what the state news media has called his "people-loving" leadership.

During the Politburo meeting, Mr Kim replaced Premier Kim Jae Ryong, who was in charge of the Cabinet and the economy, with Mr Kim Tok Hun, a senior official in the Workers' Party. The departing premier was given a senior post within the party.

Mr Kim also elevated Mr Ri Pyong Chol, an official in charge of North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons development, to the top leadership committee of the Politburo, along with the new premier.

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