Assessing North Korean media coverage of a domestic COVID-19 outbreak

(Source: KCNA)

While not shocking, North Korea’s official confirmation of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was an unusually bold move.[1] State media has been saturated for more than two years with reports sounding alarm about the virus and highlighting the country’s quarantine efforts, all clear signs the leadership was deeply concerned about the possibility of an outbreak. However, both the details disclosed and the targeted targeting of domestic audiences are noteworthy given the regime’s general reluctance to explicitly acknowledge a disease outbreak.

However, the question remains as to why North Korea decided to disclose this damning information now after more than two years of denial of all cases (contrary to many external reports). Also, why is the North reporting in such detail on the status of suspected COVID cases and providing daily figures – down to the city and provincial level – on new cases and even deaths?[2]

Steer the story

From local to national attitude: North Korean media reported on May 13 that a fever “explosively spread nationwide from late April,” indicating the outbreak could no longer be contained at the local level.[3] As such, the regime appears to have recognized the issue head-on in order to gain people’s consent before moving on to a national “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”

Announcing the news to the domestic public as well as to outside audiences only underscores the seriousness of the situation and the concern of the leadership. North Korea has in the past explicitly acknowledged outbreaks of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bird flu, but such recordings have been rare and almost always reserved for outside audiences.[4] They were typically used to obtain South Korean or international aid while protecting the native population from such negative information. The lack of significant discrepancies between North Korea’s domestic (Rodong Sinmun) and external media (the Korean Central News Agencyor KCNA website) Reports on the COVID situation suggest the country is not seeking international help this time, at least not publicly. (When North Korea seeks outside help, it usually releases additional information highlighting difficulties through external media, such as: KCNA.)

A health crisis of this magnitude and scope is unprecedented in North Korea; Therefore, it is impossible to find an exact parallel comparison. But one case from the past that we can use as a point of comparison is the regime’s handling of the floods in North Hamgyong province in 2016. North Korea belatedly announced flood damage to the local public before organizing national recovery efforts, much like North Korea did had to acknowledge a disease outbreak this time before shifting to a national anti-COVID stance.

In early September 2016, North Korea announced to the outside world (via KCNA), that tens of thousands of people had lost their homes and people were missing after the floods and that reconstruction efforts were underway in this province.[5] Ten days after the first external disclosure of the flood damage, the North Korean Party issued an appeal to all Korean Workers’ Party members, soldiers and the populace to refocus the goal of the already ongoing “200 Days Campaign” on a nationwide realignment of the mass mobilization campaign to boost economic output, to restore the tide.[6] North Korea even took the highly unusual step of reporting “hundreds of human casualties, including deaths and missing persons” to the local public, likely to reinforce its position on why national resources had to be diverted towards flood recovery.[7]

The 10-day delay in the domestic announcement suggests the regime had hoped to get outside help on the ground to rebuild North Hamgyong Province without having to notify the entire country.[8] It was only when it became clear that the extent of the damage was too great to deal with locally that North Korea informed the entire population and turned a mass labor campaign into a national flood relief movement.

Pyongyang affairs: Pyongyang’s heavy concentration of suspected COVID cases appears to have been another major concern the regime could not ignore. The first report on the COVID outbreak mentioned that the North confirmed an outbreak after conducting tests in “the capital”. The next day, Kim said, “the simultaneous spread of the fever with the capital area as the center.”[9] Pyongyang isn’t just the heart and soul of North Korea — it’s home to the vast majority of the country’s elite. It seems possible that the unusual sequence of Politburo meetings and visits by Kim Jong Un to Pyongyang pharmacies, as well as the unprecedented daily media reports of a disease outbreak, were designed, at least in part, to allay the concerns of Pyongyang residents and show them that this is the case top leadership was managing the crisis.[10]

This is not the first time unusual steps have been taken to appease the people of Pyongyang, showing that the Kim leadership takes public sentiment in the capital seriously.

In May 2014, for example, North Korea took the extraordinary measure of announcing a residential building collapse in Pyongyang and prompting senior officials to apologize to “surviving families, district citizens and other Pyongyang residents” for the disaster.[11] The regime’s handling of the incident coincided with a move towards greater transparency under Kim Jong Un, but a public admission and apology for an accident was considered highly unusual.

North Korea’s political bureau meeting in June 2020 – about four months after a border was closed to prevent a COVID outbreak – discussed “ensuring living conditions for citizens in the capital”.[12] It was the first time the North singled out living conditions in a particular region as the agenda for a Politburo meeting under Kim Jong Un. The publicity of the meeting by state media only mentioned the construction of more houses for Pyongyang residents; The government daily’s report of a follow-up cabinet meeting implied more immediate livelihood issues, such as improving water supplies and increasing vegetable production for the people of Pyongyang.[13] Pyongyang’s unusual treatment appears to have been an attempt to reassure people in the capital, whose daily lives have reportedly been disrupted after the north sealed off its borders.

put things in perspective

Assessing the accuracy of North Korean media coverage of the COVID outbreak is beyond the scope of North Korean media analysis and this paper. State media have reported a “favorable turn” and “effective containment and control” of the epidemic in recent days, indicating the regime’s confidence in handling the situation.[14] North Korea has almost certainly reported on the COVID outbreak as the situation could no longer be contained quietly and keeping the public informed was seen as crucial to effectively managing the crisis. Providing daily numbers appears to leave the regime little leeway for gross under-reporting and makes it almost risky — even considering the convenience, or perhaps even the need, of finishing the situation by the party’s prescheduled plenary meeting in June.[15]

At the same time, greater transparency has been the hallmark of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Since the early days of its rule, North Korea has shown a tendency to acknowledge shortcomings and problems, with the aforementioned admission of a building collapse in 2014 being one of many examples. North Korean media relaying Kim Jong Un’s criticisms of officials or admissions of failures – once firsts that made headlines around the world – have become the norm.

Even with this revised threshold, the extent to which North Korean media have reported new cases, recoveries and deaths on a daily basis is extraordinary considering the country has historically avoided reporting a disease outbreak when it could. Even the disclosure of figures on human casualties, particularly fatalities, to the domestic public is rare, with the mention of “hundreds of human casualties” in reference to the 2016 North Hamgyong floods being a landmark example.

The unusual level of detail appears to be part of the regime’s strategy to contain the spread of the virus by informing the public. It also seems intended, at least in part, to justify the reintroduction of emergency lockdown measures after they have started to be relaxed in recent months.

Only time will tell if the COVID outbreak has ushered in a new era of information dissemination for the North Korean regime, or if this is just a one-off event.

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