As part of a frantic attempt to defend against the coronavirus and its economic harm, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered at least two people executed, banned fishing at sea, and locked down the capital, Pyongyang, the South Korean spy agency told lawmakers Friday.
The government of Kim also directed diplomats abroad to refrain from any actions that could offend the United States because it is worried about the anticipated new approach of President-elect Joe Biden to North Korea, lawmakers told reporters after attending the National Intelligence Service's private briefing.
The NIS was quoted by one of the lawmakers, Ha Tae-Keung, as saying that Kim exhibits "excessive anger" and takes "irrational measures" over the pandemic and its economic effects.
Ha said the NIS told lawmakers that in Pyongyang last month, North Korea executed a high-profile money changer after keeping the individual liable for a falling exchange rate. He cited the NIS as saying that a key official was also executed in August by North Korea for breaching government regulations banning products brought from abroad. They didn't mention the two people by name.
To avoid seawater from becoming polluted with the virus, North Korea has also prohibited fishing and salt processing at sea, the NIS told lawmakers.
Recently, North Korea put Pyongyang and the province of northern Jagang under lockdown over virus concerns. It enforced lockdown steps earlier this month in other areas where officials noticed illegal goods and foreign currencies brought in, Ha quoted the NIS as saying.
The NIS said North Korea had made an unsuccessful hacking attempt on at least one South Korean pharmaceutical company seeking to grow a vaccine against coronavirus.
In confirming developments in North Korea, one of the most secretive nations in the world, the organization has a mixed record. The NIS said it couldn't validate the accounts of the lawmakers immediately.
North Korea reported that it did not find a single case of coronavirus on its soil, a point contested by foreign experts, although it claims it is making all-out attempts to avoid the spread of the virus. Since the North's health care infrastructure remains crippled and suffers from a severe shortage of medical supplies, a major outbreak may have dire consequences.
In January, the pandemic forced North Korea to seal its frontier with China, its largest trading partner, and aid benefactor. Along with a series of natural disasters over the summer, the closure dealt a heavy blow to the economy of the North, which has been punished by U.S.-led sanctions.
In the first 10 months of this year, North Korea's trade with China totaled $530 million, approximately 25 percent of the corresponding amount last year. Ha cited the NIS as saying the price of sugar and seasoning has shot up four times.
The North Korean won-to-dollar exchange rate has recently dropped significantly because people found few ways to use foreign currency after smuggling was largely cut off following the closure of the Chinese border, North Korean monitoring groups in Seoul said.
North Korea instructed overseas diplomatic missions not to offend the United States, according to the NIS briefing, warning their ambassadors of repercussions if their U.S.-related statements or actions cause some trouble in relations with Washington.
The government of North Korea has remained quiet over Biden's election win over President Donald Trump, with whom Kim held three summits over the nuclear arsenal of the North in 2018-19. Although the diplomacy ultimately failed, the meetings helped Kim and Trump establish personal relations and avoid the crude insults they had previously exchanged and threats of destruction.
Lawmaker Kim Byung-kee cited the NIS as saying that as his friendly relations with Trump become useless, North Korea is showing anxiety and it has to start from scratch in coping with the incoming Biden administration.
Experts have been discussing whether North Korea will soon restart major missile tests to try to get the attention of Biden. North Korea also performed major missile launches during past government changes in the U.S. in an effort to improve its influence in talks with a new U.S. administration.
In a show of force planned for Biden's inauguration, the NIS expects North Korea to hold a military parade ahead of the ruling party congress in January. Kim Byung-kee quoted the NIS as saying that North Korea is also likely to use the Workers' Party Congress to set out its basic policies against the U.S.
Kim Jong Un has said that Congress will set new state targets for the next five years, the first of its kind in four years. The Workers' Party, in a highly unprecedented admission of its policy failure in August, said that the economy of North Korea had not improved due to significant internal and external obstacles and that its prior growth targets had been severely delayed.