With pressing issues like the pandemic and vaccine rollout and the 2020 election and its aftermath, North Korea, once a mainstay in our newsfeed, seems to have been largely forgotten. So, what exactly has been going on in the so-called “Hermit Kingdom”?
Kim Jong Un stated that there have been zero COVID-19 cases reported during the pandemic despite numerous mass gatherings during 2020. However, North Korea quickly closed the borders on January 22, 2020, when the virus emerged. The country initially imposed stringent quarantine guidelines and halted all smuggling and fishing industries. As of January 8, the state claims that 26,244 COVID-PCR samples from 13,259 citizens have come back negative, with around 700 people being tested every week. From outside North Korea, it is difficult to assess the scale of the COVID crisis in North Korea as Kim Jong Un’s regime controls official messages, and most international diplomats and humanitarian groups have left the country. However, according to figures reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of December 3, 2020, 33,223 people have been released from quarantine, and the government has also isolated Chinese visitors for months. State-run media outlets educated citizens about the symptoms of COVID-19 and broadcasted images and videos of workers disinfecting public places.
More recently, North Korea attempted to hack into the servers of Pfizer to steal coronavirus vaccine information. In November, Microsoft said North Korean and Russian hackers had also tried to steal data from pharmaceutical companies and vaccine researchers, but the efforts were mostly unsuccessful.
North Korea has also recently been in the news for its hackers stealing over $300 million to pay for nuclear weapons. An unnamed country claims the hackers stole $316.4 million of virtual assets between 2019 and November 2020. The two primary cyber attacks took place first during September 2020 in the form of an attack on a cryptocurrency exchange where hackers stole $281 million, with the second attack occuring a month later. The report also accused North Korea of “[producing] fissile material, [maintaining] nuclear facilities” and weapons while continuing “to seek material and technology for these programs from overseas.”
UN investigators believe that North Korea could connect a nuclear weapon to a ballistic missile of any range and launch it. Still, they are not sure if it would be able to re enter Earth’s atmosphere. Kim Jong Un has also said that North Korea would develop advanced weapons for its missile programs, or tactical missiles and advanced warheads designed to get through United States defense systems.
Finally, a little over a month ago, North Korea unveiled their newest submarine ballistic missiles in a military parade. This parade is another example of mass (mostly maskless) gatherings in the COVID era. However, the state still reports that there are no confirmed COVID cases. During the gathering, Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear program, threatening Asia and America to counter what he described as US hostilities.