The Coronavirus Gives the US a Chance to Restart Talks with North Korea

Workers of the Ryongaksan Soap Factory make disinfectant in Pyongyang, North Korea Thursday, March 19, 2020.

AP / Jon Chol Jin

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Workers of the Ryongaksan Soap Factory make disinfectant in Pyongyang, North Korea Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Even as Kim launches missiles to distract his worried populace, he is seeking US aid for his country's battle with COVID-19.

Despite Pyongyang’s denials, available evidence suggests that COVID-19 has arrived in North Korea. It is worth trying to assess the scale of the outbreak there, how it might affect the country’s internal politics and external actions — and whether it opens opportunities for U.S. officials to advance nuclear negotiations with their North Korean counterparts. President Trump believes so; the New York Times reported Saturday that Trump sent a letter to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un offering help against the coronavirus.

North Korean officials have repeatedly denied the presence of the disease in the country, but their actions suggest that the government is likely responding to an outbreak of some size. State media has reported, for example, that the country has placed under medical monitoring some 7,000 people who show symptoms similar to those of COVID-19. On Feb. 26, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that North Korea had accepted its shipment of 1,500 coronavirus test kits. These measures suggest at least that North Korea itself suspects an outbreak within the country, and further implies that Pyongyang lacks a full grasp of its scale.

There are other reasons to believe that COVID-19 is likely spreading in North Korea. Tens of thousands of people crossed the country’s porous, 1,450-km border with China between mid-November, when the first case was discovered in Wuhan, and Jan. 23, when Pyongyang closed the border. And North Korea’s people are especially vulnerable to infectious disease. It has been widely reported that 43 percent suffer from malnutrition. Many lack access to drinkable water or sanitary facilities; North Korea was ranked 193 out of 195 countries in the 2019 World Sanitary Index, ahead of only Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. The country has a chronic lack of medical supplies and poor health care infrastructure. 

All this does not necessarily suggest a high likelihood of political instability. It is not difficult to imagine that North Koreans might panicked by rumors of COVID-19 deaths when the government does not seem to have a clear idea on the true scale of the outbreak and cannot provide enough face masks or other medical supplies. What we know for sure is that the Kim family regime has survived other national crises, including the mid-1990s famine that killed tens of thousands people, and the 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola epidemics. 

Yet perhaps this time is different. The economic damage done by the coronavirus to the economies of China and other countries will likely hit North Korea harder than in previous public-health crises, even as its own economy is struggling under international sanctions. The pain will be felt particularly by the donju, the new middle class, and by political elites in Pyongyang, whose frustration over Kim’s inability to cope with the public health crisis may lead to questions about the legitimacy of his family regime. Moreover, the global scope of the pandemic deprives Kim of his usual tactic of foreign malevolence for North Korea’s woes. Even if he is unconcerned about popular uprising in the short term, Kim has good reason to worry about the elite resistance to his authority in the medium and long term. 

This raises the likelihood that the outbreak will change North Korea’s external behavior. Unable to control the coronavirus, Kim may well mount more international provocations to display confidence, distract a worried populace, and strengthen internal unity against the perceived threat from the outside. But Kim may also boost positive engagement with the outside world, both in search of help against COVID-19 and in hopes that the international community might ease its sanctions in the name of humanitarian assistance. These dual motivations suggest that North Korea’s foreign policy behavior is most likely to swing even more dramatically between provocation and engagement. 

Indeed, North Korea has resumed military provocations. On March 3, troops fired two short-range ballistic missiles, the first in more than three months. When South Korean government expressed concerns about the live-fire exercises, North Korean responded in unprecedented fashion: the first known public statement by Kim’s younger sister. Kim Yo-jong declared that Seoul was acting like a “frightened dog barking” and called South Korean leaders “perfectly foolish.” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service assessed that the exercises and the statement were primarily intended to control the domestic situation, that Pyongyang has canceled its annual winter drill because of COVID-19, and that the live-fire exercises were intended to keep up military morale. The commander of the U.S. Forces Korea also said that North Korea had cut back training and, as of March 13, had not flown a military aircraft for 24 days.

Even as he launches new provocations, Kim is also reaching out to foreign leaders. On March 4, he sent a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to offer his condolences for the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. Although the details of the letter have not been released, the act signals the North’s willingness to resume dialogue with the South, and possibly the United States. Experts have been speculating that Pyongyang wants Seoul to lobby more actively for the lifting of international sanctions, and also that it might use this health crisis to persuade the United Nations to ease up. Indeed, China and Russia have started to talk about the need to lifting sanctions to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to North Korea. On March 2, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations urged the international community to “find a comprehensive solution” to helping North Korea battle COVID-19. 

The likelihood that North Korea will swing more frequently between provocation and engagement requires the United States to respond in its own dual fashion: calmly to provocation and with principles to engagement.

Because North Korea’s provocations at this time are likely intended mostly for internal political effect, U.S. officials should take them less as a threat and more as a call for emergency support. Indeed, Washington has unusual leverage to influence Pyongyang’s approach toward nuclear negotiation. If Pyongyang accepts Trump’s offer of aid with the coronavirus, the necessary discussions for that effort may well help pave the way for talks about other subjects. Pyongyang can be expected to seek lighter sanctions, and that will be the moment when Washington must reemphasize its final goal of denuclearizing North Korea, while showing flexibility about “smaller deals” that help move toward it. 

In short, there is a higher likelihood that North Korea already has COVID-19 outbreak than otherwise. The outbreak does not seem to pose an immediate threat to Kim Jong-un in the short term, but he is likely concerned about the outbreak’s secondary effects on economy and regime legitimacy in the medium term. This is likely to swing North Korea’s external behavior between provocation and dialogue more frequently than before, which opens a strategic opportunity for Washington to effectively engage with Pyongyang.

The views in this article belong to the author and may not reflect those of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. government.

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