What Does COVID Mean for U.S.' N.Korea Policy?

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    July 23, 2021 14:20

    Victor Cha

    In my last column, I wrote about what details can be gleaned from the Biden administration's cryptic policy review on North Korea. The bumper sticker describes what the policy is not -- rather than what it is.

    Apparently it is neither the "strategic patience" of the Obama administration nor the summit diplomacy of the Trump administration, but in May, Senior White House Coordinator for Asia policy Kurt Campbell told a South Korean newspaper that the U.S. government will accept the Trump administration's Singapore Declaration as a starting point for policy.

    A new unknown variable is the coronavirus pandemic. North Korea has declared to the international community that it has no cases of COVID-19. To ensure that there is no transmission of the virus, it has sealed its borders since January 2020. An outbreak in North Korea would be devastating to the country, whose public health system is in a state of disrepair. The facilities and clinics available to average North Korean throughout the country have very little in terms of modern technology and basic medicines. In addition, decades of food shortages have left segments of the population malnourished, which has also created a population with co-morbidities. This combination of factors, and the lack of adequate testing and tracing capacity would allow the virus to spread like wildfire.

    North Korea has applied to the WHO's COVAX facility for vaccines and its application was approved, but the vaccines have not yet arrived due to global supply shortages, as well as the question whether the country is capable of maintaining cold chain storage. Moreover, the number of vaccines allotted to North Korea is low (around 1.6 to 2 million) compared to the size of the population.

    Adding to the problem, the regime has effectively stated that it is skeptical of almost all of the vaccines currently being used. At one point, it said that it would only accept WHO-approved-for-emergency-use vaccines. North Korea has reportedly received a shipment of Chinese vaccines, but the regime did not administer them to the elites. It is not even interested in Russia's Sputnik or Astra Zeneca. This demonstrates a level of paranoia that is unprecedented even for North Korea.

    While the regime maintains that it has no cases, the North Korean leader castigated his senior leadership at a recent politburo meeting for "critical lapses" in the fight against the virus. It is not entirely clear what this meant, but one has to imagine that either smuggling or earlier efforts to relax the border closure could have created a vulnerability to infections. Commercial satellite imagery in May of the Dandong-Sinuiju border suggested that North Korea may have relaxed restrictions to allow for exports to China in order to earn hard currency, but that has since been halted.

    The regime certainly has ways of containing the virus among its population through draconian measures that violate civil liberties in ways that would be unacceptable in the West, but the real question is how much longer the economy can survive without any real trade or commerce with China, on which the North depends for 90 percent of external trade. Reports are that the food situation in the North is becoming dire and that prices are starting to rise 18 months into the border closure.

    North Korea has always demonstrated remarkable resilience despite extreme hardship, but this is arguably an unprecedented situation. North Korea can be expected to keep its border closed at least through the end of 2021. Past precedents show that with SARS, MERS, and Ebola, North Korea did not open up until several months after South Korea opened. Thus if the target for herd immunity in the South is November, then the North will be remained closed well into the first or second quarter of 2022. Can the economy survive for over two years without any trade with China?

    There are several reasons why this matters for U.S. policy. COVID has rendered moot the traditional carrot-versus-stick policy debate on North Korea. First, advocates for a sanctions-only policy may find their thesis being tested in the sense that North Korea has self-imposed tighter sanctions than John Bolton could ever have hoped for. Even if China wanted to help North Korea, that assistance -- except for some smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers -- is being rejected for fear of the virus. And yet North Korea is not begging for new talks with the U.S. and South Korea, which had been the driving thesis of sanctions advocates.

    But advocates for engagement also see their arguments being rendered unusable by the pandemic. This is because the regime, for fear of the virus, is not willing to accept face-to-face talks. The Biden administration completed its policy review over two months ago and has reached out to North Korea for dialogue, but there has been no response. Moreover, the promise to lift economic sanctions will not incentivize North Korea because of the border lockdown.

    Usually by this time in a new U.S. presidency, North Korea would have carried out some major provocation to test the will of the new president and to force itself onto the agenda. It carried out long-range ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests in the early months of both the Obama and Trump administrations. But aside from some minor projectile launches, the North Koreans have remained unusually quiet -- again, perhaps because of the internal situation created by COVID.

    What all of this points to is a policy dilemma. It leaves the U.S. only with two practical measures to consider. One would be to gather more intelligence and information about the COVID situation inside North Korea. With the January 2020 lockdown, all NGOs and foreign diplomatic personnel left the North and there is very little information about what is going inside the country. The second task would be to see how open the North Koreans are to some form of humanitarian assistance dialogue. This could be done initially through online meetings if the North Koreans fear virus transmission. Right now, the conventional means of diplomacy on denuclearization remains stymied because of the pandemic.

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