TOKYO – Under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an ailing economy, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is responding with fury, approving at least two executions in the past three months, South Korea’s intelligence agency told a parliamentary briefing on Friday.
“Kim Jong Un is taking irrational actions,” opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. “He is venting his anger excessively and rolling out measures that lack common sense.”
Ha said a foreign exchange dealer had been executed in late October, while an official at a customs post on the Chinese border was executed in August for failing to abide by strict rules on imports intended to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
“Key executives faced harsh punishment and even execution for failing to abide by virus rules,” Ha said.
The South Korean intelligence account could not be independently verified. Information flows from secretive North Korea are very limited, and such reports are not always accurate.
But experts say that Kim is likely to be feeling pressure after closing the Chinese border at the start of the year as the coronavirus spread around the world. Trade with China is usually seen as North Korea’s economic lifeline, but that lifeline has effectively been cut.
The volume of North Korea’s trade with China dropped by 73 percent in the first three quarters of 2020 compared with same period last year, according to a report released Friday by the Korea International Trade Association in Seoul.
Fearing the virus, North Korea created buffer zones along the border with China and warned that citizens entering without permission would be shot on sight, a measure condemned as a “serious violation of international human rights law” by Human Rights Watch.
The World Health Organization says it has not seen any confirmed cases of coronavirus in North Korea as of Nov. 5, although independent medical experts are skeptical that the virus has been completely kept out of the country.
Ha, the South Korean lawmaker, said prices of sugar and spices in North Korea had risen fourfold as imports from China dried up, while whole cities and even provinces, mostly near the border, had been placed under temporary lockdowns this month after foreign currency smuggling or foreign goods had been detected.
Ha said examples of North Korea’s “paranoia” about the risks of coronavirus included its refusal to accept 110,000 tons of rice aid offered by China, and a decision to ban fishing and salt production in North Korean waters because of concerns that seawater could be contaminated with the virus.
Ha added that North Korea had tried to hack into the computer network of a South Korean drugmaker developing a covid-19 vaccine, but that the attempt had been foiled.
A Microsoft executive wrote in a blog post earlier this month that North Korea and Russia in recent months had targeted “seven prominent companies directly involved in researching vaccines and treatments” for covid-19 around the world.
Meanwhile, South Korean ruling party lawmaker Kim Byung-kee, who attended the same intelligence briefing, noted that North Korea had not mentioned the U.S. election outcome in state media dispatches, signaling concern in Pyongyang about Joe Biden’s victory.
“North Korea has been telling its foreign missions not to issue election reactions or personal opinions, warning that the head of mission will take responsibility for any relevant issues,” he said. The regime was worried that better relations under President Trump would be nullified and that Washington would revert to the Obama-era approach of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, he added.
Kim said North Korea’s state media had taken between two and nine days to acknowledge election wins by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
The Obama administration refused to negotiate with North Korea for most of its eight years in power, hoping that sanctions would force the regime to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Some experts are concerned that North Korea might conduct a weapons test after Biden takes power to push its concerns up the new president’s diplomatic agenda. But others say it may wait and see what signals come from the incoming administration.