It’s too easy for the west to see North Korea as a WTF curiosity. We need to do better | Tania Branigan

As viral stories about the hermitic country abound, North Koreans face devastating hunger and Covid clampdowns

Until January 2020, the joint security area of the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ) was the one place on the peninsula where forces from North and South Korea stood face to face – a spot where Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump even met and shook hands. The US and South Korean troops stationed there have a lonelier watch now. On the North’s side, weeds poke out from the gravel and sprout between the steps of its Panmungak Hall, set just behind the demarcation line. Occasionally, soldiers venture out on to the terrace that runs along its first floor – but only clad in full hazmat suits. On an autumnal morning, the sole sign of life is a distant face peering through binoculars from the second floor. This wearer is in full protective gear too, though stationed safely behind glass. Since the emergence of Covid-19, the few windows into the country have slammed shut.

The victims are the North Korean people, now more isolated than ever. It’s also bad news for the rest of us, our ability to understand a totalitarian country with an ever-expanding nuclear programme even further reduced. Pyongyang’s recent flurry of missile tests, and the likelihood of a seventh nuclear test, have rightly commanded headlines. There is also, less happily, an insatiable appetite for tales of the country’s absurdities or lurid excesses, real or imagined. We’ve been told that Kim Jong-un had his ex-girlfriend killed by firing squad (she later appeared on television), that his uncle was not just executed but fed to dogs (a claim that originated as satire), and that state media insisted until recently that his grandfather had mastered teleportation. These stories feed on the west’s gullibility and desire for sensation and the regime’s well-documented cruelty, bombastic propaganda and genuine oddity – but also on Pyongyang’s obsessive secrecy: when so little can be seen, anything seems possible.

It turns out that even a hermit kingdom can judge itself insufficiently reclusive. The inner workings of Kim’s regime, like those of his father and grandfather, have always been shrouded in mystery. The totalitarian system imposes tight controls on borders, communications and culture. Foreigners working in or visiting the country have their movements tightly controlled. But in some ways, the North has gradually became more porous, thanks to citizens who traded with China or worked there illicitly, and to North Koreans glimpsing the US and South Korea via smuggled foreign movies and TV shows.

Then came Covid. The North was among the first countries to close its borders, and warned that anyone attempting to cross the buffer zones it created would be “unconditionally shot”. Its troops reportedly killed a South Korean official on a boat near the maritime border and incinerated his body, possibly after he tried to defect. The terror of the virus is real: its health system is in tatters. But the virus has also been an opportunity for authoritarian leaders to impose measures that further increase their control. Nowhere has that been clearer than the North: “Covid has given a lot to Kim Jong-un,” says the elite defector Tae Yong-ho.

Pyongyang has turned down offers of aid, blocked almost all official and unofficial trade and severely restricted domestic travel – with devastating impact: it has long been unable to meet basic needs, leaving citizens to scrape a living through trade and the informal economy. One expert on the North’s economy warns that food availability has probably fallen below basic human needs and, on one metric, is at its worst since the deadly famine of the 1990s. In December 2020, it also introduced a law attacking foreign influence that made distributing or watching foreign media punishable by long prison terms, and encouraging others to view punishable by the death penalty – intensifying previous campaigns.

Even before the pandemic, the regime had halted and then reversed very limited economic changes that incentivised individuals, fearing they were reducing its control. The failure of the unprecedented bilateral talks with the US, and of the South’s attempts to thaw relations, left Pyongyang more suspicious of the west than ever, and more closely tied to Russia and especially China, which is propping it up with deliveries of food, fuel and fertiliser.

Covid has exacerbated these shifts. Due to the harsh restrictions, NGOs shut down and all western diplomats left the country: only eight embassies are functioning at all, around a third of the previous total, and with much-reduced staff. Experts say state media is less revealing than ever, and fewer publications can be read from overseas now. A once steady stream of defectors is said to have plummeted from 1,000 in 2019 to 195 in the first nine months of 2020, with perhaps 19 arriving in the South in the first half of this year. The shutting down of smuggling networks has reduced the flow of information out, as well as in. The result: “Our knowledge of North Korea is the worst for 35 years,” says Andrei Lankov, a leading expert on the country.

While some call for the South to attempt to penetrate the North’s barriers to information – for instance, resuming propaganda broadcasts along the border – such measures would risk destabilising relations for probably minimal return. At best, it might enlighten some North Korean troops; it would not improve outsiders’ knowledge of the country. Continuing to offer it vaccines and other supplies, despite its snubs, and to petition for the return of diplomats and other foreign workers, would be a wiser choice – albeit one requiring considerable patience.

Last year, we were told that North Korea had banned the population from wearing leather trench coats like Kim’s. This January, reports that the country claims burritos as its own invention circulated widely. Meanwhile, the increased hunger and isolation of North Koreans has been largely overlooked. It is long past time to treat the country not as a WTF-inducing curiosity and a heavily armed security nightmare but as a place in which 25 million people live, in dire economic straits, subject to what the UN has described as “unparalleled” human rights abuses by their own leadership, and now under tightened control. Standing at the DMZ, looking into North Korea, it is clear that it has shut the world out even more decisively. But how hard did we try to see it in the first place?

  • Tania Branigan is a Guardian leader writer; she spent seven years as the Guardian’s China correspondent

  • Red Memory by Tania Branigan (Guardian Faber, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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