North Korea’s flag carrier returned to the skies last month for the first time in more than three years, as Air Koryo resumed flights between Pyongyang and Beijing and the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
The flights, which allowed North Korean citizens sent abroad before the pandemic to return home, came as satellite imagery showed road passenger transport across the Yalu river that separates North Korea and China had also picked up.
Even Kim Jong Un himself is preparing to make his first trip abroad since 2019, travelling to Vladivostok this week to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss weapons sales to Moscow, according to US officials.
North Korea is embarking on a belated reopening from some of the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions in the world, ending a years-long period of self-imposed isolation that was unprecedented even by the reclusive regime’s standards.
The reopening will help replenish state coffers and strengthen diplomatic engagement with neighbours Russia and China. But experts said any loosening was likely to be cautious and narrowly defined as the regime sought to preserve many of its pandemic-era controls.
“The system of surveillance and control instituted by Kim Jong Un in response to the coronavirus pandemic will be dismantled only partially, selectively and gradually,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Kim reacted quickly to the emergence of coronavirus in early 2020, sealing borders, tightening restrictions on internal movement and ejecting most foreign diplomats and aid workers.
Pyongyang also stepped up construction of fences, barricades and electronic surveillance systems along its once relatively porous border with China, a process mirrored on the other side by Chinese authorities.
“The North Korean regime was genuinely concerned about the threat of coronavirus,” said Lankov. “But the pandemic also gave Kim a pretext to institute measures he would have liked to have carried out anyway, in a way that he could justify both internationally and domestically.”
North Korea, which never instituted a public Covid vaccination programme, declared “victory” over the virus in August last year. The following month, it started to allow a limited number of freight transports from China through specially constructed disinfection centres.
But as the regime begins to reintegrate thousands of citizens who spent the pandemic exposed to foreign ideas and practices, it will look to restrict the flow of information to minimise threats to its stability.
Hyun-seung Lee, a former North Korean businessman who operated in the Chinese port city of Dalian before his defection in 2014, said returning overseas workers were normally subjected to “two or three months of ideological indoctrination and re-education”.
Lee, who now lives in New York, predicted they would now face even more intense examination. “They may be required to report everything they have seen and heard over the past three years, and to report on each other’s words and actions.”
But Lankov said workers and students dispatched abroad by the regime were unlikely to prove a destabilising force given their relatively lofty status in the country’s hierarchy.
“From a North Korean point of view, these are often extremely well-paid members of the labour aristocracy,” he said. “They are not going to want to forgo their privileged position. Their indoctrination sessions will remind them where they are and the importance of keeping their mouths shut.”
On Wednesday, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol urged Asian leaders not to accept new contingents of overseas North Korean workers, which he said helped raise foreign currency to fund Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
A more concerning fate awaits North Korean refugees detained as “illegal migrants” in China. Last month, a coalition of human rights organisations wrote to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressing alarm that Beijing was set to restart forced repatriations of as many as 2,000 North Koreans.
Meanwhile, the routes for escape have tightened. Su Bobae, a Seoul-based researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, said China’s deployment of facial recognition and biometric technologies had made it harder for North Koreans to cross a border previously patrolled only by human guards, who could be evaded or bribed.
“It will be difficult to secure useful testimonies or information from defectors who can vividly explain the current situation in North Korea,” said Su.
Analysts warned that Kim’s border closures would also stifle the trade and smuggling networks that underpinned North Korea’s informal economy before the pandemic and alleviated chronic food shortages.
The regime admitted in 2021 that the country was suffering a “food crisis” as it wrestled with the combination of border closures, international sanctions and a miserable harvest ruined by heatwaves and flash flooding. A UN report this year estimated hundreds of thousands of North Korean children were malnourished.
Go Myong-hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said analyses of satellite imagery and trade data to monitor agricultural output suggested that “whereas North Koreans have always been hungry, many are now likely to be starving”.
He noted that after reasserting state control over the grassroots market, Kim would seek to raise funds through state-run activities such as Chinese tourism, which could be contained within closed resorts.
While Pyongyang has begun to gradually resume diplomatic contacts, dispatching new envoys to Beijing and Vladivostok, it has not welcomed back western diplomats or aid workers expelled during the pandemic.
Lankov added that Kim’s reopening strategy could be summed up as “fewer westerners”.
“In the past, westerners were tolerated as a necessary evil because they were a source of aid and investment,” said Lankov, arguing that Kim had been given more room for manoeuvre by intensifying geopolitical tensions between China and Russia, and the west.
“But now Kim receives all the support he requires from China and Russia. Why have Australian tourists, British aid workers or German diplomats hanging around seeing what they’re not supposed to see and asking difficult questions when you don’t need them?”
The regime will justify its citizens’ circumstances by invoking the existential security threat from South Korea and its US patron, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at the Open Nuclear Network in Vienna, noting Kim’s highly publicised visits to munitions factories over the past month.
“Kim’s message is that defence must come first, even if that means citizens continuing to tighten their belts,” said Lee.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong