TOKYO — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump were sitting across a circular wooden table for a brief photo opportunity at their 2019 summit in Vietnam when a U.S. reporter asked a question of Kim.
In the 2½ years since, North Korea has basically clammed up again. It has become so opaque that Kim’s stunning exchange in Hanoi seems unimaginable in the current information vacuum.
North Korea sealed its borders shut in the pandemic, even to its major trade partner, China, a move that the U.N. human rights watchdog said exacerbated shortages of food and medical supplies. But the harsh measure has also led to a loss of firsthand insights on the country that helped policymakers connect the dots about internal pressures and trends that inform U.S. policy toward the nuclear-armed regime.
The lockdown has prompted an exodus of foreigners — diplomats, aid workers, business envoys and others — who could fact-check state media reports about the totalitarian country. Their accounts helped inform policymakers on decisions about how to negotiate and engage with North Korea to curb its ever-growing nuclear ambitions, and about how to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics that guide the totalitarian leader’s political calculations.
“Attempting to formulate sound policy options without opportunities for direct engagement is like stumbling in the dark,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert in diplomatic negotiations.
“In the case of North Korea, where we’ve had a long history of very limited, first-person interactions, it’s especially dicey,” she added. “Insights gained through face-to-face conversations, particularly when sustained over time, are hard to beat.”
North Korea is taking the pandemic hyper-seriously, to the point of near paranoia, analysts say.
Pyongyang is so strict about its border enforcement that it has ordered any trespassers — even animals — to be shot without warning, according to an October 2020 decree obtained by NK News, an outlet that follows North Korean affairs. The previous month, North Korea shot dead a South Korean official who disappeared from a fisheries boat, later dousing the man’s body in oil and setting it on fire in an apparent anti-coronavirus measure, South Korean military officials said.
At a military parade broadcast Thursday, the first in President Biden’s term, rows of people dressed head to toe in orange coronavirus protective gear marched. The state media photos offered one of the few glimpses for analysts to pore over to gain intelligence and clues about life under the regime.
“They are a dark country, but these days, they are darker,” said Kim Joon-hyung, a professor of international relations at South Korea’s Handong University and a former foreign policy adviser to President Moon Jae-in.
“This covid issue, in addition to the sanctions, they’re really scared,” Kim said. “This is an existential threat, I think, to them.”
North Korea is commonly referred to as a “hermit kingdom,” but until recently there had been more information flowing in and out of the country than that moniker suggests.
Some Western journalists traveled there for stories, and the Associated Press had a Pyongyang bureau, but most foreign journalists have been shut out of North Korea recently.
Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former CIA analyst on East Asia, said those details can include: How severe is the food shortage? Is life getting better or worse? Are there any signs of discontent?
“It’s a police state where no one will openly criticize the supreme leader, but expert observers can pick up subtle clues about popular sentiment. That has been now lost,” Terry said. “That makes it all the harder to make informed policy decisions about North Korea.”
'Lack of engagement'
While Biden’s special envoy to North Korea has said he would meet “anywhere, anytime” with his North Korean counterparts to jump-start stalled nuclear talks, the administration has further alienated the North by renewing a North Korea travel ban and holding joint military drills with South Korea, said Frank Aum, senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former Pentagon official.
“The biggest obstacle right now to getting the right type of information we need for policymaking is the lack of engagement with North Korea,” Aum said.
Most Western countries pulled out diplomatic staff in early 2020 because of the food and medical shortages. Diplomatic staff from a handful of other countries remain, including Russia, China, Syria and Cuba.
Even the number of defectors has plummeted. Just two North Koreans reached the South in the second quarter of 2021, the lowest quarterly count in at least 18 years — further limiting recent first-person accounts of life there.
And a crackdown on the illegal use of cellphones has created barriers for even contacts who have long circumvented state controls, said Robert Lauler, English editor at the Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service with informants inside North Korea.
“Sources in North Korea have to be able to make phone calls or connect to networks at certain times, and I think that’s probably become much more difficult because they’re having to be more watchful than perhaps in the past,” Lauler said.
The information gap is a growing concern for analysts and humanitarian groups because it comes at a time when, according to the United Nations, ordinary North Koreans are experiencing a severe food shortage. Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim called for efforts to prevent further economic damage from natural disasters or coronavirus outbreaks, state media reported.
“My big concern is that, number one, the North Korean state security apparatus might conclude that this is a much better environment, and recommend for leadership to seriously curtail international engagement, which will have an impact on the information we can learn,” said Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News.
There were signs that Kim was retreating from the outside world even before the pandemic hit, analysts say. Some point to the breakdown of negotiations at the February 2019 Hanoi summit, when Trump and Kim failed to reach a deal, as a turning point.
Since late 2019, state media statements about self-reliance started ramping up and detailed commentary about foreign affairs became infrequent, analysts said. The statements on foreign affairs used to give a sense of what the leadership deemed to be the most important developments around the world.
There’s also concern about the lack of information flowing into the country, particularly for the ordinary citizens who are most deprived of it.
Many defectors are unable to get in touch with their families or send remittances, affected by the crackdown on brokers who would arrange such contacts.
“The people who were in contact the most [with their families in North Korea], they don’t know what’s going on with their family,” said Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of the nongovernmental organization Liberty in North Korea, which helps North Koreans resettle in the South.
Park said he fears conditions will not improve anytime soon.
“This could be a new normal,” he said. “They were already so isolated, and it was difficult to imagine them being more isolated. But they’ve done it.”