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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, inspects the construction of a residential area along the Janggang River in Qionglou-dong, Jungang District, Pyongyang City. Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based director of Liberty in North Korea, says the COVID-19 pandemic has been “a disaster for the North Korean people.”-/AFP/Getty Images

Living on an island in the Yalu River, Wang Qiuyue was used to seeing her neighbours just across the way in North Korea going about their daily lives.

“We could see people farming or washing stuff in the river,” she said. “But after the pandemic began, we rarely saw them.”

North Korea, commonly called a “hermit kingdom” because of its decades of isolationist policies, has been almost entirely closed off to the outside world since early 2020, even pausing most shipments from China, its major ally and economic partner.

This extreme response to the pandemic has severely reduced the amount of information coming out of the country. Almost all foreigners have left, including diplomats and United Nations officials, and the closing of the borders has essentially stopped the outflow of economic and political refugees, a vital source of up-to-date intelligence.

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What we do know is grim: The economy has contracted severely; tens of millions of people are struggling to find enough food; and the government has used the health crisis to crack down on already limited freedoms while continuing to focus on the military above all else, including new missile tests.

Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based director of Liberty in North Korea, which aids refugees fleeing the country, said Pyongyang’s recent actions “show the regime’s priorities.”

“[Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un] himself has referred to the increased economic difficulties and food problems multiple times, but what’s the major thing they’ve done this year so far? Missile tests.”

Mr. Park said the pandemic has been “a disaster for the North Korean people” and has resulted in a “new dark age” when it comes to getting information in or out of the country.

The number of refugees reaching South Korea dropped from 1,047 in 2019 to 229 in 2020 and just 63 last year. Even then, the majority of those were likely already outside North Korea when the pandemic began, making the actual number of new escapees even lower.

Sealing the border with China has not only hampered official trade but also cut off much black market activity, as have new limits on internal movement, while the ability of North Koreans living abroad to send money home has also been severely affected.

Mr. Park said sources inside the country have reported price increases for basic necessities such as soap, toothpaste and cooking oil. The cost of staple foods is higher, too, but often things are simply not available. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that as much as 63 per cent of the population, some 16 million people, are now experiencing food insecurity, both as a result of pandemic restrictions and extreme weather in 2020.

“Only aid under the name of the state can be channelled to North Korea. All normal trade has long been halted,” said Hu Xiaodan, the manager of a logistics company in the Chinese border city of Dandong. “The railway line was resumed earlier this year, but only life necessities can be transported to the other side of the border.”

Last year, Mr. Kim called for an “arduous march” against the new economic difficulties. That term is normally used by North Koreans to refer to the devastating famine of the 1990s, believed to have led to millions of deaths, and was seen as a tacit acknowledgment by Mr. Kim of the scale of his country’s recent struggles.

But while there are signs of a gradual reopening of the border with China, little else has been done to ease pandemic restrictions.

Nor is it likely that North Korea can open up any time soon without devastating effect. It is one of only two countries, along with Eritrea, not to have begun mass vaccination against COVID-19. It has refused to accept vaccines from the World Health Organization, unwilling to brook the foreign oversight that would come with such aid.

Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that despite Pyongyang’s stand, “governments and international institutions should press the North Korean government to accept monitored international assistance like food, vaccines, and medicine.”

Most pandemic-related supplies are exempt from international sanctions, though such restrictions make any dealings with North Korea far more complicated and can dissuade some entities from getting involved for fear of legal consequences.

While North Korea’s strict “zero-COVID” approach seems to have been relatively effective so far, Mr. Park said it is vital to get vaccines into the country, given how quickly Omicron has spread elsewhere, including Hong Kong and China, both of which had similarly strict controls in place.

“They’ve been extremely draconian, paranoid and restrictive from very early on, but that doesn’t mean they can control it forever.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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