North Korea Isn’t Ready for Coronavirus Devastation

The country has sealed its borders — but an outbreak would be a chance for the United States to do good.

In this photo taken on February 6, 2020, a woman helps her daughter seen wearing a face mask in Pyongyang.
In this photo taken on February 6, 2020, a woman helps her daughter seen wearing a face mask in Pyongyang. Kim Won-Jin/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 is putting Northeast Asia in the headlines. After its opaque and authoritarian response failed to contain the virus in Hubei province, China has virtually shut down the entire country. Japan’s bureaucratic response to the Diamond Princess cruise ship at the port of Yokohama was so incompetent that several countries sent planes to rescue their nationals. And after initially holding on relatively well, South Korea is facing a wave of newly discovered cases, spread among members of a religious cult who are less than forthcoming with their symptoms.

Yet North Korea, the usual headline-maker of Northeast Asia, is curiously absent from the coronavirus-related news. In some ways this is not surprising; news rarely travels out of perhaps the world’s most sealed-off country. But it is worth paying attention to how Pyongyang handles the epidemic, as crises tend to open up surprising new possibilities.

North Korea claims it has no cases of coronavirus, according to its propaganda channels. The Pyongyang office of the World Health Organization said they received no report of an infection. North Korea did institute perhaps the most draconian measure to cut itself off from China, the source of the outbreak: closing its border altogether and harshly enforcing quarantines. South Korean media reported that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, had an official executed for violating the quarantine after the official returned from a trip to China—although such reports have proved dubious in the past.

But if North Korea’s response to a different recent epidemic is any indication, it is unlikely that North Korea is free of COVID-19. North Korea’s rudimentary public health system simply lacks the ability to contain a major outbreak. In May 2019, the African swine fever that decimated China’s pig farms reached North Korea. By late September 2019, South Korea’s spy agency reported that African swine fever had spread throughout the country and every head of hog in North Pyongan province, bordering China, was destroyed. Even if Pyongyang’s claims it has detected no coronavirus cases are true, it may reflect North Korea’s inability to test for the disease rather than the true absence of it. Testing for the virus requires specific primers and relatively sophisticated labs—both of which North Korea likely lacks, especially if relations with China are strained by the border closure.

The coronavirus outbreak also hurts North Korea in other ways. Shutting down its border with China is effectively an embargo upon itself, as more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China. It also puts a major damper on Kim’s recent initiative to host Chinese tourists. Since Pyongyang failed to obtain sanctions relief at the 2019 Hanoi summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim’s regime has been pursuing tourism, one of the few remaining avenues through which it could generate trade and foreign currency. Unlike selling raw materials and products such as coal and textiles, tourism is not subject to sanctions. As long as North Korea can make itself attractive enough for visitors, tourism could potentially be a cash cow for the Kim regime.

North Korea signaled the intention to pursue tourism in October 2019, when it announced it would demolish the “unpleasant-looking” South Korean facilities at the Mount Kumgang resort, which had been abandoned since 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist visiting the resort. Although some viewed the move as a sign of Pyongyang’s displeasure with Seoul, Thae Yong Ho, a former high-ranking North Korean diplomat, saw a different motive. Thae said Kim was probably trying to promote tourism from China by renovating the decrepit facilities at Mount Kumgang. Time proved Thae correct. By the end of 2019 and early 2020, North Korea opened a host of new tourist attractions, such as a ski resort in Samjiyon and a spa resort in Yangdok.

COVID-19, however, upended Kim’s plan. By shutting down its borders, Pyongyang also shut down any hope of making a return on the investment that it made into building the resorts—a significant burden for North Korea’s impoverished economy. Signaling his desperation, Kim went so far as to send a personal letter of encouragement to Chinese President Xi Jinping along with a cash gift, trying to stay on China’s good side during the border closure and resume Chinese tourism as soon as practicable. But the move will likely have been received poorly in Beijing nevertheless—perhaps contrasted with an equally vulnerable Cambodia’s decision to keep its borders open and its nationals in Wuhan.

For those who care about denuclearizing North Korea, this may present an opportunity for diplomacy.  This isn’t to take a callous approach toward an epidemic that has already claimed more than 2,000 lives; fighting the virus is the first priority. But Rahm Emanuel was onto something when he said: “You never want a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” The United States has tried mightily to separate North Korea from China, its chief patron. Now, the coronavirus epidemic is doing the job that the United States failed to do.

Recall that denuclearization talks with North Korea made the most progress in 2018, after China spent much of 2017 supporting the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions against North Korea as Beijing became increasingly concerned with the destabilizing effects of North Korea’s nuclear program. Conversely, the negotiations stalled as China’s relationship with North Korea improved in 2018 and 2019. In practice, North Korea’s border shutdown is acting like a sanction on North Korea’s trade with China. The impact of the shutdown goes beyond tourism; even smuggling across the China-North Korea border has become virtually impossible. The guard posts along the border have received orders that “people, freight, nothing can come in or go out,” according to Kang Mi Jin, a North Korean defector who is now a journalist in South Korea.

This makes it the right moment for the United States and its allies to extend a helping hand.  The underappreciated fact about sanctions is that they are effective only if they are eventually lifted. Never-ending sanctions and isolation achieve nothing; the point of imposing sanctions is to gradually lift them over time in exchange for a gradual change of behavior. This moment, when North Korea is more isolated than ever from its most important ally, offers the greatest opportunity for the United States to drive a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing.

The beauty of this is that helping North Korea in this situation requires no formal change in U.S. policy at all. No sanctions need to be lifted, as medical and humanitarian assistance is not subject to their restraints.  In addition to medical aid, the United States and South Korea may offer to open tourism for Americans and South Koreans to visit North Korea’s newly constructed resorts when the viral epidemic is over.  Doing so would begin the process of weaning North Korea from its trade dependence to China, gradually pulling it toward the United States’ sphere of influence.

Ultimately, denuclearization of North Korea can be achieved only after Washington and Seoul establish a peaceful relationship with Pyongyang. Establishing such a “peace regime” is doubly beneficial, as it serves as a check against the increasingly illiberal and assertive China. Not even the most well-designed sanctions regime could have achieved the level of isolation that North Korea is currently experiencing.  The United States should not miss this window of opportunity.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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