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 for the policy describes what it is not, rather than what it is. That is, Biden says his policy is not the strategic patience of the Obama administration, and not the summit diplomacy of the Trump administration. At the same time, in an interview with a South Korean newspaper in May, Senior White House Coordinator for Asia policy Kurt Campbell stated that the U.S. government will accept the Trump administration’s Singapore Declaration as a starting point for policy. However, six months into the Biden administration’s term, the unknown variable in U.S. policy toward North Korea is the COVID situation.

North Korea has declared to the international community and to the World Health Organization that it does not have any cases of COVID inside of the country. To ensure that there is no transmission of the virus, it has closed its border since January 2020. An outbreak of the pandemic inside of North Korea would be devastating to the country. Its public health system is in a state of disrepair. There are of course many facilities and clinics available to average North Korean citizens throughout the country, which CSIS has been studying, but there is very little available to these citizens 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 COVAX for vaccines and its application was approved but the vaccines have not yet arrived in the North due to global supply shortages, as well as questions as to whether the country is capable of maintain cold chain storage of vaccines. 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 in words and in actions 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 reportedly received a shipment of Chinese vaccines, but the regime did not administer them to elites. Pyongyang also reportedly is not interested in the Russian vaccine or the Astra Zeneca vaccine. 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 protecting against virus transmission. 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 virus transmission. Commercial satellite imagery by CSIS 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 halted.

The regime certainly has ways of containing the virus among its population through draconian measures that would violate most 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 upon which it depends for 90 percent of external trade. Reports are that the food situation in the North is becoming more 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. Moreover, North Korea would be expected to keep its border closed at least through the end of 2021 into early 2022. 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 from COVID 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 carrots versus sticks policy debate on North Korea. First, advocates for a sanctions-only policy may find their thesis being tested right now 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 many some smuggling and some ship-to-ship transfers — is being rejected for fear of the virus. And yet, we do not see North Korea suffering under the weight of sanctions begging for new talks with the U.S. and South Korea, which has been the driving thesis of sanctions advocates.

Second, advocates for engagement with North Korea 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 — a key part of the carrot approach — will not incentivize North Korea because of the border lockdown.

Third, 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 as a priority issue for the U.S. 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. Because of COVID and North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine from the world, neither a policy of carrots or sticks on denuclearization would seem to be effective. 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 of 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 of the country. The second task would be to see how open the North Koreans are to some form of humanitarian assistance dialogue with regard to the current COVID situation. 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 otherwise stymied because of COVID.

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