In spite of the formidable enemies whom they face when looking south, sometimes North Korean leaders have even greater worries about security along their northern border.
In 1970, Kim Il Sung complained: “There was a time when we had more difficulties on the border with China than on the demarcation line. And you know very well that the border is 1300 km long, whereas the demarcation line around 240 km.“
Legacy politics can hardly explain everything about today’s North Korea, but grandfather’s complaints sound very relevant to Kim Jong Un today.
But instead of merely sending salvoes from Maoist loudspeakers across the Yalu and Tumen rivers, China today is instead proliferating a “coronavirus” which necessitates a great deal of state attention in Pyongyang.
In the past week, there has been a minor explosion of stories asserting that North Korea is dealing with a coronavirus outbreak, and a pile of evidence that the country is taking strong preventative steps.
But amid the speculation, there has been very little to no writing in English about how widely coronavirus has spread in the areas directly across the border from North Korea, or how specifically border areas of China are dealing with the coronavirus.
Such an assessment only represents a point in time — but will help in assessing how North Korea might be looking at the disease and the border.
WORKING IN TANDEM WITH CHINA?
Finding verifiable data on incidents of coronavirus in North Korea is essentially impossible. The state has itself not admitted to a single case.
The DPRK has, however, put forward a number of public initiatives to prevent the disease from spreading. These steps include declaring an emergency, closing the border with China, and quarantining diplomats and tourists who are Chinese or transited through China.
Nevertheless, the absence of a few notable people and called-off events indicate that things are very serious in the DPRK.
China’s Ambassador in Pyongyang, Li Jinjun, who would presumably be a point person if Kim Jong Un wanted to send doctors or supplies to China, has not been seen since visiting overseas Chinese households in east Pyongyang on January 22. Plus, North Korea appears to have canceled a military parade planned for February 8.
While at the end of January Kim Jong Un offered a letter of assistance to Xi Jinping, there has not been much information about joint responses to the outbreak.
DATA ON CORONAVIRUS IN THE BORDER REGION WITH NORTH KOREA
On January 27, the Global Times stated that there were only six cases of coronavirus across Jilin province. By February 11, this number had risen to 81 confirmed cases, with 108 cases in neighboring Liaoning and a far larger toll of 360 cases in Heilongjiang.
On February 6, Chinese state media said it had identified and isolated four coronavirus patients from the whole of Yanbian prefecture.
On the same day, Xinhua identified one coronavirus patient in Tonghua, and two more were added by February 11. While Tonghua is back from the Yalu River border in southwestern Jilin and does not physically border North Korea, it serves as the larger logistical hub about an hour’s drive back from the Ji’an-Manpo connection (unlike Ji’an, it has an airport).
Tonghua includes multiple tourism companies doing business in North Korea and, according to my own conversations with locals there in recent years, has been growing as a site for short-term trips geared toward the purchase of goods by North Korean elites from Kanggye and Manpo.
The huge cities of coastal and central China have been a major draw for young workers hailing from the relative backwater of eastern Jilin and the string of small cities abutting the border with North Korea.
The same is of course true for Jilin province as a whole. One 17-year-old virus carrier in Gongzhuling, well away from the border, near Changchun, hadn’t traveled anywhere, but was visited by her father who had been working in Wuhan.
It appears that at least two such individuals who had been working or studying in Wuhan had traveled back to such towns while carrying the virus — a 29-year-old from Helong, and a 27-year-old from Tumen. Both Helong and Tumen directly border North Korea.
On February 9, with some fanfare, Yanbian News announced that what appears to be the two individuals (from Helong and Tumen, respectively) had been treated for coronavirus successfully and were being released for 14-day isolated observation at home.
Interestingly, the Tumen individual’s treatment included a newly-organized group of researchers at Yanbian University, and was said to include “a combination of Chinese traditional and western medicine.”
Certainly, the impetus toward propaganda and victory is present even in the smallest villages around the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.
A laudatory article about village party secretaries around the very ethnically-Korean small city of Longjing indicated that traffic in and out of these villages was essentially locked down in late January.
A number of temporary measures have gone into effect — for example, the Mao’erlin Forest park, a striking motorway park overlooking the valley dominated by Longjing and between Yanji city and the North Korean border, will be temporarily closed.
The Yanbian Aiport (Chaoyangchuan) has been the site of logistics operations for the state in emergencies before. According to Yanbian News, there is still an average of 1500 passengers coming and going each day through the airport.
SPECULATIVE SOURCES ON THE SITUATION IN NORTH KOREA
Set against these official statistics is a matrix of unverifiable sources coming out of North Korea.
Of these, Daily NK has put forward perhaps the most numerous, intriguing, and interlocking articles relating to coronavirus. One of Daily NK’s sources asserted that most of the North Koreans in China have not been able to return home, with the exception of ‘the top 1 %’ who are now in quarantine in a few hotels in Sinuiju.
Another source indicated that North Korean workers were already in a type of isolation in China anyway, in factory compounds, and would return to work on 10 February.
A far more detailed piece sourced to ‘a high-ranking official in Pyongyang’ explained that pneumonia patients would be at Pyongyang People’s Hospital No. 3, and that this facility was likely the center of quarantine and treatment of the coronavirus in the city.
The absence of a few notable people and called-off events indicate that things are very serious in the DPRK
A Daily NK source in Sinuiju did not assert that coronavirus had taken hold in the city, but indicated that five deaths from ‘fever’ in the North Korean border city were suspicious.
Smuggling activity along the Yalu River has been much more carefully policed as of the closing of Sinuiju port on 25 January, and the border has further been tightened up near Hyesan, according to a ‘Ryanggang province-based’ source for Daily NK.
On top of this leading barrage of possibility, Don Kirk further summarizes anonymously-sourced pieces from Chosun Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo, given color by a trio of North America-based analysts Bruce Bennett, Evans Revere, and Victor Cha.
FLAWED LEADERSHIP IN CHINA’S BORDER AREAS WITH NORTH KOREA
A comprehensive look at the response of public officials in the border region is not possible at the present moment, but the following is a sample of sorts.
Jiang Zhiying (姜治莹), the ethnic Han cadre serving as the Party Secretary of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture Party Committee since 2017, spent a day in Hunchun on February 11.
In that key cross-border trading post, he sought assurances that production was not being impacted, that there were no outsiders coming into the community, and that traffic was being carefully policed.
Jiang is a good example of how interrelated China’s problems of governance along the frontier truly are. He is a poor messenger for public health and trust in the Party, having been implicated and investigated in August 2018 in a massive vaccine scandal in Changchun, the biggest city in Jilin province and where he had served as Vice-Secretary of the city’s party committee and mayor from 2012-2016.
The public anger over the Changchun Changsheng’s falsification of data ultimately reached into investigations of corruption of 42 officials who were or who had been stationed in Jilin province, and the arrest of 18 figures at the company including its chairperson.
A relatively comprehensive timeline of the investigation was published by the central authorities in Beijing, indicating Premier Li Keqiang, Party Secretary Xi Jinping, and the national administration for medicines were all pulled in.
In the summer of 2018, the Changchun company was jointly investigated along with a Wuhan firm that was also selling substandard vaccines, although no defective medicines from Wuhan made their way to the northeast.
In short, while the vaccines scandal means that Jilin has presumably been cleaned out of a number of malfeasant actors with respect to public health, it has not been a model province, to say the least.
That Jiang Zhiying — an official directly implicated in the Changchun vaccines scandal — is today running point for China along one crucial section of border with North Korea might not inspire a great deal of confidence for observers in the DPRK.
Nevertheless, Jiang is in charge of security efforts around Yanbian, as illustrated at a very extensive meeting on February 6.
While the Chinese state media is very careful to note that the Yanbian Airport is being obsessively monitored, there are no references whatsoever in his or other remarks about border crossings with North Korea, or any mention of trade or connections to the DPRK at all.
Edited by James Fretwell