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Pierre Rigoulot: "Why North Korea continues to sink into the abyss"


FIGAROVOX/TRIBUNE - For the historian specializing in communist regimes, the liberticidal policy of Kim Jong-un's regime to fight the Covid-19 epidemic has impoverished the North Korean population and rushed the country into the arms of others powers, including Russia.

Pierre Rigoulot, a specialist in communist regimes, is director of the Institute of Social History (founded by Boris Souvarine in 1935) and editor-in-chief of the quarterly

Histoire & Liberté.

He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is

Hot Points of the Cold War (1946-1989),

L'Archipel, 2019.

In 2021, North Korea seemed to sink into a sad repetition of the same: food shortages in the countryside and small towns, a few barks against Seoul and Washington, as usual doomed to loathing, a few appearances, and above all, a few prolonged absences of the No. 1 causing a stir in the


- not to mention the intermittent presence of the sympathetic sister of the Great Leader, Kim Yo Jong, always available to condemn, vilify, denounce in flowery terms the bloodthirsty monsters that surround his country .

Fariboles, just like the media dissertations on the role that he is made to play the "bad cop", when Kim Jong-un would have that of the Good.

Because can we speak of a good cop when we call Park Geun-hye, the former president of South Korea, a

"dirty old prostitute"

, Obama a

"naughty black monkey"

, and Michael Kirby, chairman of the UN human rights investigation in North Korea, '

lewd homosexual'


The Covid-19 epidemic has obviously contributed to reinforcing the country's isolation.

Even the rail traffic thanks to which food and various materials arrive from China was interrupted from January 2020 to April 2022, a resumption moreover once again interrupted to protect itself - again and again - from a wave of Covid in China.

All physical contact being avoided, trade between North Korea and China would have plunged by 89% between 2019 and 2021, and would have fallen to 710 million dollars in 2021, its lowest level since… 1955.

Was this the price to pay to triumph over the Covid?

Observers, however, greet with a wry smile the claim of the North Korean authorities to have kept the number of Covid cases in the country at zero for so long.

Admittedly, North Korea is so isolated and so little traveled by its own citizens, that Pyongyang's ranting in this area seems plausible to some.

A few cases were nevertheless recognized for the first time in May 2022 despite the reinforced closure of the borders, and on this occasion we found the usual delirious forms of Pyongyang propaganda: the coronavirus would have been brought by a few

"objects from somewhere else"

- meaning the balloons loaded with leaflets, food or medicine that South Korean activists (and North Korean refugees) regularly send over the demilitarized zone.

The governments in place in Seoul (like that of Moon Jae-in, who has just left the political scene), anxious to establish what they believe to be “good relations” with Pyongyang, put pressure on these groups to prevent them from doing so.

But they ignore it, as much as possible, and when the accusation was launched in the North of contamination by

"objects from elsewhere"

, a group of activists, "Fighters for a Free North Korea", came to send about twenty balloons carrying thousands of masks, tablets of medicine and vitamin C.

The North Koreans, feeling the low credibility of their assertions on the origin (foreign, necessarily foreign) of the cases of Covid which were multiplying at home, agreed that undoubtedly, an epidemic was developing, but that it was fevers that had nothing to do with the Covid-19!

On August 12, 2022, power - in this case the sister of No. 1 - therefore declared victory: the epidemic wave was receding;

the Covid-19 was defeated and the "flu" which had many analogies with the covid-19 would soon be too!

Weakened, many people could not get to work during the closure of the Pyongyang markets in May 2022. The international sanctions of recent years have also weighed on the population.

Pierre Rigoulot

Meanwhile, in a rare move by the North Korean leadership, the rock-solid posture of invincibility was put away.

We even learned that Kim Jong-un had also been infected with the virus!

Observers who see reason for hope in the slightest sign of positive development from the totalitarian hedgehog that is the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" have likened this effort to truth to tears (yes: tears!) shed by the leader during a recent speech, where he admitted that he had not been able to meet the legitimate expectations of the population hard hit by the unleashed elements.

The pandemic and a hurricane therefore affected North Korea as it happens in the rest of the world.

And Kim Jong Eun finally accepted on September 12 - too late and in too small quantities - vaccines that he had been rejecting so far.

And during the summer of 2022, the Covid epidemic caused deaths north of the 38th parallel, as everywhere - around 50,000.

But the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state news agency, faithful to the traditional line, nevertheless assures that 4.77 million North Koreans have been affected by these


different from Covid, and that 'they caused the death of only 74 people.

Even approximate, the estimate of 50,000 dead obviously seems more realistic.

As in China, it is the difficulty of coping with the organization of too many funeral ceremonies that has fueled doubts in the face of reassuring official statistics.

The excess mortality, and the consequent congestion that the epidemic has caused in funeral services, as well as the high cost of transporting bodies and cremations, have pushed many families to organize discreet funerals in remote places, at night, the graves remaining unmarked.

The Chongjin crematorium, for example, is the only one available in North Hamgyong province, which has 2.3 million inhabitants!

Added to the traffic jam was the high price of transportation and then the cremation of a body (the latter costing 430,000 won, a little over 60 dollars, a very high price for an average salary).

Hence the multiplication of these discreet funerals in secluded places.

Is the wave of "fevers" overcome now?

The photos of Kim Jong-un surrounded on July 29 by veterans of the 1950-1953 war, without anyone wearing a mask, seem to indicate this.

No new cases have been reported since that day, which contrasts with the 400,000 daily new cases in mid-May 2022.

The living conditions of the North Korean population, as we can see, have hardly improved despite the few reforms introduced in agriculture by Kim Jong-un.

According to the FAO, food difficulties affect approximately 40% of the population.

The few echoes that reach us of the situation, thanks in particular to information sent from inside the country to a few attentive ears, such as the online newspaper

Daily NK News,

are chilling.

Retirees have, strictly speaking, barely enough to live on: some sell their ration tickets for the purchase of products that are not essential in their eyes, in order to buy food.

The supply, which also depended on Chinese imports, official or clandestine, has deteriorated a lot since the strict closure of the borders put in place to prevent the Chinese Covid epidemic from crossing Yalou or Tumen.

Maize prices, consumed by the poorest, at least doubled from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2021;

rice, too, has risen considerably, albeit to a lesser extent, and it is feared that the usual scarcity will give way to another severe famine, as was the case in the 1990s - this famine only with aplomb the regime attempts to equate to a heroic fight, now ritually speaking of the time of the "Arduous March" to evoke it.

A report published by the UN even indicated in early July 2022 that 42% of North Koreans could be considered insufficiently nourished, compared to 34% in the early 2000s.

A significant part of the population survives in a delicate physical state.

When Pyongyang's markets were temporarily closed in May, it was a disaster for the people who bought their supplies there.

Weakened, many people could not go to work.

The international sanctions following the nuclear tests of recent years also weigh on the population, and the GNP has gone down in the last two years.

In 2021, it was equivalent to 3.5% of that of the South.

North exports accounted for $80 million in 2021, (8% less than the previous year) and imports fell 18% to $630 million.

As for trade between the North and the South, it amounted to only $11 million last year.

The Chinese seem cautious and have not yet given assurances of a resumption of bilateral trade relations.

Russia, on the other hand, seems more willing to do so, and we are currently witnessing a political rapprochement between the two countries.

The major concern of the North Korean press in recent years, however, is not its dramatic economic situation, but the "anti-socialist behavior" of youth.

A law has been enacted which will provide a framework for the eradication of

"reactionary thought and culture"


It targets fashions from the South and the broadcasting of recordings - mainly television programs and pieces of pop music from the southern neighbour.


"unified command

(it's a war that it is!)

to fight against anti-socialist behavior"

, and even


, has been set up.

Since May 2022, checks have therefore been reinforced on young people suspected of idleness and in particular on messages from their mobiles, their musical recordings and their photos.

It is said that the number of detainees in the camps has increased, and not only for the criticism leveled at different aspects of the government's anti-Covid policy, but also for the

"anti-socialist behavior"

exhibited by some young people.

The experience of observing the USSR has taught us caution.

We can only say imprecisely that the number of detainees in the camps in North Korea is undoubtedly between 100 and 200,000 people... The refugees are however not more numerous than before, quite the contrary: the closure of the country has grown significantly in recent years.

While 1,047 North Koreans fled to the South in 2019, there were only 229 in 2020, and 63 last year.

These distressing domestic news did not prevent North Korea (quite the contrary?) from remembering our good memories on the geopolitical level.

She recognized the independence of the pro-Russian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, castigated Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, said she was ready to sell shells for the guns of Putin's army, and passed a law authorizing the use of preventive nuclear strikes.

We will doubtless be worried about it, but with a certain smile in spite of everything, in front of this procedure: as if Kim Jong Eun needed a vote from his Parliament to make a decision!

In any case, it is a question of worrying the West, and of contributing to the fight that Putin is waging against it.

This is how North Korea, although weakened by chronic scarcity and economically underdeveloped, affirms its presence and that of its Leader at the international level.

Putin, who does not miss an opportunity to affirm the Russian presence, supports Kim in return, demands an end to the sanctions (which he himself voted for!), even transgresses them by maintaining more or less discreetly the presence of workers North Koreans on its soil, while the UN, unable to enforce its own decisions, has banned this practice beyond 2019.

30,000 North Korean workers are in Russia, mostly loggers, very unhappy to see that the companies that employ them pay them at least a third less than workers from elsewhere, in this case from 'Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The UN, sadly unfaithful to the principles which are its own, is discredited.

North Korea will gain nothing from it.

His two godfathers are at his side, while watching over each other.

Pierre Rigoulot

It is even possible that the creatures of Russia that are the “governments” of Donetsk and Luhansk are welcoming North Korean workers.

“Independent” regions, however, they are not members of the UN, and therefore not affected by international sanctions.

According to Alexandre Matsegora, the Russian ambassador to North Korea, interviewed by


, these workers sent far away to bring currency to Pyongyang, could participate in the reconstruction of the areas destroyed by the war.

No doubt ready to welcome them, Denis Pouchiline, leader of the Donetsk region, sent Kim Jong Eun his warm congratulations on August 15, North Korea's national holiday.

The current international tensions have also resulted in the breakdown of the partnership that existed until then within the Security Council to push North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic tests.

The United States was thus able to rightly ask the UN if

the “limitless strategic alliance”

concluded between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in February 2022, just before the aggression against Ukraine, led them to neglect security. by refusing any aggravation of the sanctions against North Korea following its new missile tests, whereas joint firmness had been in order without interruption since 2006.

Cleverly, the Chinese claimed that the toughening of the sanctions would only make a political agreement more difficult, and would increase international tensions.

De Laurentis, the American ambassador, replied that his country was ready to resume discussions, but that North Korea remained deaf to his invitations, and continued its missile tests without any particular provocation or pressure exerted against she.

This one thus benefits from the tensions between Russia and China on the one hand, the Western world on the other hand, to continue its “nuclearization”.

It obviously benefits from the right of veto of Beijing and Moscow and even from a certain complacent legal formalism of the UN, which for example let take shape an ubiquitous episode of access of North Korea to the rotating presidency of the conference year on disarmament held in Geneva!

Fifty countries and the European Union certainly protested, but were content to say they were

"seriously concerned"

about this position granted to North Korea.

China, Russia, but also Pakistan and Nigeria, lent their support to this scandalous presidency.

This discredits the UN, sadly unfaithful to its principles.

North Korea will gain nothing from it.

His two godfathers are at his side, while watching over each other.

It is with Putin that the North will trade - and only in arms.

Beijing can, however, reassure themselves, knowing that North Korea, for decades, has believed itself to be in control of its fate, because it plays a recurrent seesaw game between China and Russia.

The first has the advantage over the second of its hundreds of kilometers of borders with North Korea (compared to two or three dozen with Russia), a less threatening international calendar than that which awaits Russia, and export capacities much superior.

Source: lefigaro

All news articles on 2022-09-29

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