Last month, North Korea’s flagship carrier returned to the skies for the first time in more than three years as Air Koryo resumed flights between Pyongyang and Beijing and the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
The flights allow North Korean citizens who were sent abroad before the pandemic to return home, and satellite images show an increase in passenger traffic on the Yalu River road that spans North Korea and China.
Even Kim Jong Un himself is preparing for his first overseas trip since 2019, heading to Vladivostok this week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discuss arms sales to Moscow, according to U.S. officials.
North Korea is moving to lift some of the world’s strictest Covid-19 restrictions in a belated reopening, ending a years-long period of self-isolation that was unprecedented even by the standards of the reclusive regime. .
The reopening will help replenish state coffers and strengthen diplomatic engagement with neighboring Russia and China. But experts say any easing is likely to be cautious and narrow-minded as the regime seeks to retain many pandemic-era controls.
“The surveillance and control system that Kim Jong Un established in response to the coronavirus pandemic will only be partially, selectively and gradually dismantled,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Kim Jong Un responded quickly to the emergence of the coronavirus in early 2020, sealing borders, tightening restrictions on internal movement and expelling most foreign diplomats and aid workers.
Pyongyang has also stepped up construction of fences, roadblocks and electronic surveillance systems along its once relatively porous border with China, a process that Chinese authorities have followed suit.
“The North Korean regime is really worried about the threat of the coronavirus,” Lankov said. “But the pandemic also gives Kim an excuse to take steps he would have liked to take in a way that he could prove internationally and domestically that he Reasonable way.”
North Korea has never had a public coronavirus vaccination plan but declared victory over the virus last August. The following month, it began allowing a limited number of shipments from China through purpose-built sterilization centers.
But as the regime begins to reintegrate thousands of citizens who were exposed to foreign ideas and practices during the pandemic, it will seek to limit the flow of information to minimize threats to its stability.
Hyun-seung Lee, a former North Korean businessman who did business in the Chinese port city of Dalian before defecting in 2014, said returning overseas workers typically undergo “two to three months of ideological indoctrination and re-education.”
Lee, who now lives in New York, predicts they will now face stricter inspections. “They may be required to report everything they have seen and heard over the past three years and report on each other’s words and actions.”
But Lankov said workers and students sent abroad by the government were unlikely to become a destabilizing force given their relatively high status in the country’s hierarchy.
“From North Korea’s perspective, these people tend to be members of the extremely well-paid labor aristocracy,” he said. “They will not want to give up their privileged position. Their brainwashing sessions will remind them of where they are and the importance of keeping their mouths shut.”
South Korean President Yun Seok-yeol on Wednesday urged Asian leaders not to accept new overseas contingents of North Korean workers, which he said would help raise foreign currency to fund Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
An even more worrying fate awaits North Korean refugees detained in China as “illegal immigrants.” Last month, a coalition of rights groups wrote to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing alarm that Beijing would resume forced repatriations of up to 2,000 North Koreans.
Meanwhile, escape routes have been tightened. Su Bobae, a Seoul-based researcher at the North Korea Human Rights Database Center, said China’s deployment of facial recognition and biometric technology has made it more difficult for North Koreans to cross borders that were previously patrolled only by human guards, who could be evaded or intercepted. bribery.
“It is difficult to obtain useful testimony or information from North Korean defectors that can vividly explain the current situation in North Korea,” Su said.
Analysts warn that Kim Jong Un’s border closure will also choke off the trade and smuggling networks that underpinned North Korea’s informal economy before the outbreak and ease chronic food shortages.
The regime admitted in 2021 that the country was suffering a “food crisis” as it grappled with border closures, international sanctions and poor harvests caused by heat waves and flash floods. A United Nations report this year estimated that hundreds of thousands of North Korean children are malnourished.
Ko Myung-hyun, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said analysis of satellite images and trade data that monitor agricultural output showed that “while North Koreans have always been hungry, many may be starving now”.
He noted that after reasserting state control over grassroots markets, Kim would seek to raise funds through state-run activities such as Chinese tourism, which could be restricted to closed resorts.
While Pyongyang has begun to gradually resume diplomatic engagement, sending new envoys to Beijing and Vladivostok, it has not welcomed Western diplomats or aid workers expelled during the pandemic.
Lankov added that Kim Jong Un’s reopening strategy could be summed up as “less Westerners.”
“In the past, Westerners were seen as a necessary evil because they were a source of aid and investment,” Lankov said. He believed that by exacerbating geopolitical tensions between China and Russia, as well as the West, Kim Jong Un gained more Room for maneuver.
“But now Kim Jong-un has all the support he needs from China and Russia. Why are Australian tourists, British aid workers or German diplomats hanging out when you don’t need them, seeing things they shouldn’t and asking difficult questions?” question?”
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna, said the regime would defend the situation of its citizens by citing existential security threats from South Korea and its U.S. patron, noting that Kim Jong Un has Lee made highly publicized visits to arms factories.
“Kim Jong Un’s message is that defense must come first, even if it means citizens continuing to tighten their belts,” Lee said.
Additional reporting from Cambu City