The agency in charge of North Korea’s response to COVID-19 has been upgraded and reorganized as a military organization, a move that sources in the country told RFA was meant to use fear of the coronavirus as a tool to exert more control over the population.
The organization, set up in January as the virus spread in China, now answers directly to top leader Kim Jong Un after a reshuffle last week that also ordered provincial and county-level coronavirus centers to be reorganized as military units, governed by military law.
“The Central Emergency Quarantine Command was renamed as the Central Emergency Quarantine Headquarters at a meeting of the Party’s Political Bureau on the 13th, and reorganized as a military unit,” an official in Pyongyang, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“It’s known that Chairman Kim Jong Un is personally heading the [headquarters],” the source said.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported August 14 that the command was reorganized in order to “correctly exercise its power and increase its responsibility and role.”
On July 2, RFA reported that the government sacked several of the Emergency Quarantine Command’s senior officials at a meeting of the Political Bureau, with Kim Jong Un citing their failures to prevent the pandemic from spreading into the country.
The Emergency Quarantine Command was established in January, shortly after China and North Korea suspended all trade and shut down their borders in response to the spread across China from the epicenter in Wuhan. Since then, North Korea has taken extensive measures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus within its borders, all while maintaining outwardly that it is virus-free.
Regional commands militarized
According to the Pyongyang source, regional COVID-19 response organizations have also been reorganized as military units.
“The Central Emergency Quarantine Command of each provincial Party committee became Emergency Quarantine Divisions, and the heads of provincial party committees were appointed as division commanders. The county-level [organizations] meanwhile became the Emergency Quarantine Brigade, with the heads of the county party committees appointed as brigade commanders,” the source said.
“As Supreme Commander [Kim Jong Un] is in charge of the Emergency Quarantine Headquarters, it seems that the authorities are determined to fight a war to prevent coronavirus infections,” the source added.
“The Central Emergency Quarantine Headquarters operates in the same system as the military, and military law governs acts of neglect or obstruction in [its mission to] prevent the spread of the virus,” said the source.
Even with the new name and status as a military-run entity, the headquarters “did not provide any [new] scientific measures to prevent coronavirus,” the source said.
“But it is clear that the authorities are focused on ensuring that all members of the party, the military, and the public obey the commands and control measures of the Central Emergency Quarantine Headquarters,” the source added.
The shift toward military control is a way for the government to show the public that authorities are taking the pandemic seriously without having to do much, according to the source.
“With the return of the North Korean refugee on July 19, authorities are gradually escalating their sense of crisis over coronavirus,” the source said.
A man who had escaped to South Korea in 2017 swam back across the border to his hometown in Kaesong on July 19, and authorities reported he had COVID-19 symptoms, a claim which could not be confirmed by South Korea. Kaesong was put under complete lockdown and travel between provinces was outlawed as the country entered a “maximum national emergency.”
Sources told RFA at that time that they were skeptical that the returned refugee could be the true cause of heightened emergency level. They thought the government was using the incident to instill fear to exert more control over the people and discredit North Koreans who escape the country.
The Pyongyang official feared the government was using the military reorganization of the command to do the same.
“The number of infections is soaring again worldwide, so it seams that the government intends to stoke fears over the crisis to distract residents who are dissatisfied with their living difficulties,” said the source.
The power of fear
Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, confirmed the reorganization to RFA, adding that the changes also enabled the local organization to spread fear among the people.
“On the 14th, when the Onsong county Emergency Quarantine Command was disbanded and the county party committee was reorganized into the Emergency Quarantine Regiment, the head of the county party committee was appointed as head of the regiment,” the second source said.
The classification of the county-level response body into a military regiment “means that the party will take charge of everything. Since the day after the change, the [regiment] has been threatening county residents that military laws will be applied to acts against any new coronavirus quarantine project, leaving many of the residents fearful [of the new organization,]” the second source said.
“The Onsong county Emergency Quarantine Regiment is demanding that residents obey the orders of the authorities and submit to their control unconditionally. Instead of trying to solve the problems of the people suffering from economic issues and food shortages, the state is trying to use the coronavirus to stifle dissent.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) said August 5 that a person suspected to be infected with coronavirus in Kaesong was tested for COVID-19, but no conclusion has been made on the result.
According to the WHO, North Korea has quarantined and released a total of 25,905 people since December 31, 2019, including 382 foreigners and 25,523 North Koreans. North Korea still maintains that there are no COVID-19 confirmed cases in the county.
North Korea’s Central News Agency said that during the August 13th Political Bureau meeting, Kim Jong Un defined recent floods and the coronavirus pandemic as “two crises,” and the bureau began discussing prompt countermeasures.
Kim In-tae, a senior researcher at the South Korea-based Institute for National Security Strategy, told RFA in a telephone interview that there are actually three crises.
“North Korea has suffered a triple whammy of international sanctions, economic difficulties caused by COVID-19 and the recent floods,” he said.
“Pyongyang has yet to respond to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s congratulatory speech on the 15th due to the worsening internal situation in the North, which has been aggravated by COVID-19,” he added, referring to Moon’s 75th Liberation Day address, where he called North and South Korea a single community in terms of the life and safety of the Korean people.
Reported by Sewon Kim and Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.