Pyongyang Might Be Ready for a Helping Hand From Seoul

Pride may get in the way, but mutual success against the coronavirus offers a strong foundation for cooperation.

Visitors look at ribbons wishing for peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula
Visitors look at ribbons wishing for peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula on a military fence at Imjingak peace park, near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in Paju on Jan. 1. Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party has significantly expanded his mandate through a stomping midterm election victory, giving him the political space to pursue long-held goals such as reviving cooperation with North Korea. But just what such measures would look like in the era of the coronavirus, and whether Pyongyang will be interested, remain deeply uncertain.

North Korea responded aggressively to news of the outbreak, barring international tourists from Jan. 22, even before China locked down Wuhan. Pyongyang’s claims to have zero cases are dubious and its testing capacity is extremely low, but its ability to enforce restrictions on movement is high, allowing it, as best outsiders can tell, to partially contain the virus.

A complete national lockdown is unsustainable in the long term, however, so like other countries, it seems that for the next year to 18 months North Korea will pursue a strategy that goes back-and-forth. Pyongyang will likely impose travel restrictions, limiting who can go in and out of the country, as well as tighten social distancing rules for households whenever the medical system is overburdened.

That gives South Korea time to build a collaborative initiative focused on the disease. The pandemic, in one form or another, will be with us in 2021. Even if a vaccine is produced within the astonishingly short span of a year and distributed in the months afterwards, it is unlikely a developing economy pursuing a largely autarkic response to the pandemic will be on the shortlist for early mass vaccinations.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

The World Health Organization and international health nongovernmental organizations will likely be stretched thin as developing countries worldwide desperately struggle to cope with the impact of the virus. Moreover, unlike during SARS in 2003, North Korea faces considerable donor fatigue and sanctions—both connected to the nuclear issue. Over the past several years, the United Nations has struggled to raise funding for aid projects in North Korea, NGOs have seen moneyed foundations look to markets elsewhere, while sanctions impede moving money in and out of the country, as well as the importation of goods that include metal or parts made in the United States. This deterioration in the external environment, combined with a near-certain global recession, means international aid agencies and other groups are less able to help North Korea fight the pandemic than they would have been had it occurred several years ago.

As such, the best partner for North Korea remains its southern neighbor.

The South Korean government took a comprehensive early-intervention approach once the virus was detected on Jan. 20. Its successes have been well publicized. The country has also avoided the economically crippling lockdowns now prevalent in Europe and the United States. The death rate is hovering around 1 or 2 percent and, as of late April, new daily infections are consistently below 20 people.

Importantly, from the perspective of inter-Korean cooperation, both countries appear to have gotten control of the situation, even as the pandemic continues globally. There will be no complete victory in the next few weeks or even months, but South Korea’s schools are set to reopen in May, and the country just conducted a nationwide election.

Pyongyang, with its recent Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, universities restarting, and other high-profile projects, also seems also to be approaching a kind of return to seminormality. This means that both governments can approach the issue from a position of strength, making cooperation politically easier. They could frame the initiative as a mutual strengthening of response capabilities, rather than one side providing aid to another.

There are a number of ways the two sides could assist one another. One might be in ramping up production of masks and other personal protection equipment, not only to meet domestic needs but for export. North Korea has unused production facilities; South Korea has global distribution networks that North Korea lacks. With a sanctions waiver by the United Nations, the two sides could explore joint work on products that will be globally in demand for at least the next year, perhaps longer.

If a waiver isn’t granted, Seoul might consider putting revenue from such a venture directly into public health facilities in North Korea, through the purchase of testing kits, respirators, or other equipment. This might avoid the U.N. ban on transfer of bulk cash to North Korea, but would still require the Moon government to be willing to push Washington. (Respirators, for example, could conceivably contravene the ban on import of metals under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2397, Article 7.) One unknown factor is whether North Korea would accept such a workaround—its leaders do like cash, after all—and whether Moon’s willingness to challenge Washington has increased. Another is whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has the bandwidth and interest in seeing Seoul initiate such proposals.

A less tricky starting point could be setting up a joint coronavirus research group to take advantage of the human talent on both sides of the border. Such a team could conduct research into antibody tests, infection tests, or a vaccine. A laboratory could be set up in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, staffed by scientists from both sides.

Pyongyang will resist appearing weak or in need of help at this moment, but cooperation would make sense for it in the medium term. Given the willingness of the international community to relax sanctions for this specific issue, COVID-19 cooperation could lead to North-South cooperation on broader health issues, especially those that have regional implications, such as tuberculosis and perhaps malaria—and to allow development aid even under strict sanctions.

The inter-Korean liaison office set up following the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom in April 2018 is in prime position to take on a new, specific role as a joint Korean COVID-19 response center. The office began operations in September 2018, but following the failed summit in Vietnam between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea reduced staffing and interactions in March 2019. On Jan. 30 of this year, the office was shut completely because of the coronavirus outbreak. The liaison office could be restarted in order to begin discussing issues related to coronavirus, even if immediate cooperation is not yet in the cards.

It’s hard to know how responsive North Korea will be to this. Kim Jong Un sent a friendly letter to Moon in early March regarding the pandemic, but his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has risen in the ranks and is seen as her brother’s confidante, took a harsher tone in the same week, calling Seoul “senseless” for expressing concern about short-range missile tests conducted by the North. Functional inter-Korean cooperation has ceased, and North Korea has clearly signaled that it is not currently interested in pursuing a breakthrough with the United States, a precondition upon which most inter-Korean projects depended. That breakthrough might still be necessary, but it seems likely that Kim would like to explore whether Moon’s calculus vis-à-vis his superpower ally has changed after the election.

Tragically, North Korea will be unwilling to share information if the coronavirus outbreak is worse than it has reported or if it continues to regard it as a national-security issue. Pyongyang, as ever, is loath to expose weaknesses to its adversaries. Even seeking personal protective equipment, sanitizer, or diagnostic equipment might be felt to be giving away too much information to the outside world. If that mindset prevails, this moment will have to be added to a long and growing list of missed opportunities.

Andray Abrahamian is the 2018-2019 Koret Fellow at APARC, Stanford University.