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In North Korea, Coronavirus Hurts More Than Any Sanctions Could


SEOUL, South Korea — On New Year’s Day, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, called for a “frontal breakthrough to foil the enemies’ sanctions.” The strategy meant finding new sources of income, legal or illegal, and mainly from China.

Sending North Korean workers to China. Bringing more tourists from there. Smuggling banned cargo, like coal or oil, across the border at night or between ships on high seas.

But there was one thing Mr. Kim did not foresee: the coronavirus.

Barely three weeks after Mr. Kim unveiled his New Year’s resolution, North Korea shut down ​its border with China to protect itself against the emerging outbreak in the city of Wuhan. It was no ordinary border​ closure.

China accounted for 95 percent of the North’s trade. Consumer goods, raw materials, fuel and machine parts smuggled into the North across their 870-mile border kept North Korean markets and factories sputtering along, despite United Nations sanctions designed to curb the Kim regime’s nuclear ambitions.

With the border sealed, the North’s official exports to China, already hobbled by the sanctions, have crashed even further. In March, they were worth just $610,000, according to Chinese customs data — down 96 percent from a year earlier. The North’s newly opened ski and spa resorts are empty of Chinese tourists, and its smuggling ships sit idle in their ports.

In his ​grim New Year’s message​, Mr. Kim seemed determined to slog through the sanctions, asking North Koreans to prepare to “tighten our belts” again. He also vowed to boost his nuclear weapons program further, hoping that a more advanced nuclear arsenal would give him more leverage with Mr. Trump or his successor. He threatened to end his moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, warning that ​the world would soon witness ​his “new strategic weapon​.”

State-run television echoed that sentiment later in January, in a broadcast about Mr. Kim’s brief meeting with Mr. Trump last summer on the inter-Korean border. “We don’t intend to sell our pride and national power for some spectacular economic transformation,” Mr. Kim was quoted as telling Mr. Trump, after the American leader promised the North a better economic future if it gave up its nuclear weapons first.

At the time, Mr. Kim had reason to be so defiant.

After hitting bottom in 2018, his country’s trade with China grew 15 percent last year, according to data compiled by the Korea International Trade Association. It exported practically anything not banned by United Nations sanctions: cheap watches assembled with Chinese components; artificial eyelashes; wigs, mannequins, soccer balls and tungsten.

China also sent more tourists to the North after Mr. Kim’s third summit meeting with its leader, Xi Jinping, in June 2018. Tourism was one North Korean industry that had not been affected by the sanctions, and Mr. Kim has been busy building massive new resort towns.

“The debate has been about how quickly or slowly the North’s foreign currency would diminish,” Mr. Go said. “But there is no doubt now that Covid-19 has accelerated the speed.”


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