When the Enemy is Imperceptible: North Korea and Covid-19

On Saturday North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. According to South Korean sources, it was the third such action this month.

Kim Jong-un watches military drills as his masked acolytes wait in the wings

Usually such provocative moves would elicit global condemnation, dominate more news headlines. Not in today’s frenzied world, where the Covid-19 coronavirus hogs nearly the entirety of every media homepage.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Kim Jong-un has used the current inattention towards his persisting missile programme to authorise these tests. Yet there may be an additional motive, for the tests may also serve as a distraction for his own people in the midst of the heightened panic over Covid-19.

Despite Donald Trump praising Kim’s handling of the virus outbreak, and Kim claiming that nobody in North Korea has yet been infected, there is serious cause for concern that the destitute people living under the Stalinist regime will suffer greatly at the hands of Covid-19.

Many North Koreans are trapped in agrarian primitiveness

Whilst much is made of North Korea’s isolation from the rest of the world, its border with China is particularly porous, with goods, legal and illicit, regularly passing back and forth. Given the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, it is surely only a matter of time before the virus breaches the flimsy wall of the Hermit Kingdom?

Despite the government maintaining a firm grip on traditional media, the North Koreans are no longer as oblivious to global events as they once were. Any spread of the virus cannot be passed off as an attack on North Korea by unfriendly powers, given that it is quite obviously spreading around the world at an astonishing pace.

Traditionally, misfortunes and crises in North Korea have been blamed on the nefarious intentions of the United States or other non-communist powers. The devastating famine of the mid-1990s is a case in point, when the government’s disastrous land reform policies resulted in millions of deaths. The people remained ignorant of the root cause, however, pervasive social media still being a couple of decades away.

Other hardline communist nations have acted similarly. Cuba was on the verge of collapse at the same time as the North Korean famine. This beautiful island, previously the elegant retreat and playground of wealthy Americans, descended into barbarism as ordinary people struggled to survive. Mass starvation was afoot and prostitution and drug dealing became rife, crime exploded in the fight over black market goods, individuals turned to criminality rather than work 100-hour weeks for an appalling government salary. One need only read the visceral depravity of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’ Dirty Havana Trilogy to get a sense of the horror unfolding because of the incompetence of the Castro regime. Of course, the Americans got the blame and given their track record in Cuba, most of the public were willing to buy the excuse.

The once elegant buildings along the Malecon in Havana crumbled as the people starved during the ‘Special Period’ of the mid-1990s when the dissolution of the USSR destroyed Cuba’s economy

Going back further in the 20th century and you find the devastation wrought by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Soviet famine of the 1930s brought about by Stalin’s forced collectivisation. Here, internal enemies were blamed, whether they be ‘capitalist roaders’ in China or ‘Trotskyites’ in the USSR, all linked to a wider global conspiracy against the communist utopian vision.

The lack of a significant rebellion against these government-imposed tragedies was partly due to fear, but also because the government narrative was successful in portraying the enemy as the ‘other’, largely through a tight control on the media.

So-called ‘capitalist roaders’ were subjected to public trials, imprisonment and execution as Mao sort to bolster his position by creating a fervent personality cult. The internal enemy was explicitly linked with a wider global conspiracy against communism

This is no longer the case and, as is also evident in Iran, dictatorial regimes cannot keep their people in the dark about the coronavirus. Death tolls cannot be kept artificially low, ‘business as usual’ will not work in the long run.

The last ‘pure’ communist regime – albeit perhaps only in name – may be less robust than some have recently thought. Kim will be aware of the menace posed by a potentially widespread coronavirus outbreak. Will this be the surprise catalyst to ending the regime after years of predictions about an American attack, a Chinese conspiracy or an internal coup?

As Sue Mi Terry recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:

North Korea is uniquely unprepared for a medical emergency of this magnitude. With a crumbling health-care system that is starved of public investment, it is arguably more vulnerable to a viral outbreak of this kind than any other country in the world.

So Kim is resorting to the standard distraction. Look at our new missiles. Look at our national development. Look at how powerful we are. It may wash with some, but with a brave and resilient civil society operating across North Korea, aided by contacts in the neighbouring South, the narrative can become easily corrupted. Particularly if large numbers of people begin to die. The easy excuses of the 20th century are unlikely to work in the uber-connected 21st.

From Principled Revolutionaries to Disillusioned Drug Traffickers: barriers to the Farc peace talks

A major step has been reached in attaining a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). At negotiations in Cuba, the government representatives have agreed to Farc’s future political participation, adding to a recent partial agreement on land reform.

Despite these positive steps, four other areas need to be agreed upon for a peace deal to be concluded: disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of Farc victims and the implementation process of any peace deal. The first two items seem particularly difficult to resolve given Farc’s resemblance in recent years of little more than heavily-armed drug dealers.

Farc rebels have become synonymous with guns and drugs
Farc rebels have become synonymous with guns and drugs

As the mirage of revolutionary success has gradually slipped away over the years, many of the Colombian rebels have abandoned their revolutionary principles and attempted to profit materially from their endeavours, recruiting a variety of violent hooligans, traffickers and murderers along the way.

An idea of the more principled nature of some of the early Farc rebels can be gleaned from British Foreign Office documents, and one story from 1976 is particularly illuminating.

At the beginning of that year, members of the Anglo-Colombiano private school travelled to the small village of Uribe on the eastern foothills of the Cordillera, on the edge of the Llanos, to establish a literacy and agricultural education programme for the local populace.

Modern-day Uribe, on the edge of the Llanos
Modern-day Uribe, on the edge of the Llanos

During a stopover in Uribe, the British deputy headmaster of the school, in addition to other staff and pupils, were awakened in their dormitories by the arrival of a group of Farc rebels. Eight guerrillas shepherded the group into the small town square. Despite being afraid of the intrusion, the deputy headmaster acknowledged that none of the Farc were brandishing weapons.

As local villagers were corralled into the square with the school personnel, a 24-year old rebel, calling himself ‘Miguel’, assured the people that they would not be harmed. Rather than harangue the ‘prisoners’ in the town square, Miguel welcomed them and thanked the delegation from the Anglo-Colombiano school for their efforts to initiate a regional literacy programme. It was then that Miguel made his political stand:

He spoke against the government of Lopez Michelsen, the rising cost of living, the lack of health and educational facilities, and American imperialism. The answer to these problems, he said, could only be found through workers’ control. 

Delivering his speech in the pitch dark, Miguel apparently captivated the 100-strong audience, all of whom enthusiastically joined in with the singing of ‘viva las fuerzas revolucionarias’ and ‘viva el comunismo’. Miguel finished by telling the people that his men had no intention of committing robbery or assault, rather they had come in search of food and medicine for which he said they would gladly pay. (This is in stark contrast to some modern Farc rebels who, rather than protect the common villages and workers, pillage their land and extort their businesses).

The only alarm expressed by the deputy headmaster was when, having been returned to their dormitories, he realised that a female student was missing. He was relieved, however, to find that the girl had remained behind talking to one of the rebels, who she described as “muy simpatico y muy churro (dishy)”.

This whole event was later deliberately misinterpreted by the Colombian press, which suggested some 200 guerrillas had invaded the helpless Uribe. This justified an armed response of paratroopers and attack helicopters by the government.

Such personalities as Miguel and his troupe helped win the Farc support amongst both the rural poor and the educated liberal middle class during the 1970s which led to the belief that the communist militants would one day assume control of Colombia.

That they never achieved this may be a blessing given the problems inherent in communist states, yet it has led to the Farc metamorphosing into a quasi-revolutionary, criminal gang, loosely organised under a command incapable of instilling the founding principles of the movement into its current members.

The Farc are still active throughout north-western Colombia, although centralised control is diminishing
The Farc are still active throughout north-western Colombia, although centralised control is diminishing

The peace process undoubtedly still has a long way to go.