The international community has almost zero visibility into how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting North Korea. But there is one certainty: North Korea cannot weather a severe outbreak on its own. The pandemic may create opportunities for humanitarian cooperation in the short to midterm, but it is very unlikely to inspire the kind of change in either Pyongyang or Washington that would lead to a breakthrough in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The current impasse in U.S. negotiations with North Korea is the result of completely incompatible demands from both countries and a total lack of trust that the other will not cheat on an agreement. North Korea wants sanctions relief. The United States wants comprehensive, unilateral surrender of North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim Jong Un has no guarantee that surrendering all or even part of his nuclear program would leave him in a better position than Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, both of whom saw their regimes overthrown after they backed down from developing nuclear weapons. The United States has no evidence that North Korea would not simply accept sanctions relief and then conceal aspects of its nuclear program and appropriate revenue from eased sanctions to further fund the program.
The Kim regime’s current priority is to project an image of business as usual in North Korea. In March 2020, North Korea tested nine short-range missiles and continued to conduct military exercises, even as the United States and South Korea postponed their own exercises to reduce the risks of contagion. As the coronavirus pandemic strains public health systems, economies, and supply chains the world over, North Korea claims to have zero cases of the virus after it quarantined large portions of the country and sealed its borders. State news media credits the country’s highly organized response and the superiority of its free public healthcare for controlling the pandemic.
Numerous actions by North Korea already challenge the narrative of normalcy. In the next few months, a clearer picture of how the pandemic has affected North Korea may emerge. An uncontrolled outbreak in North Korea would quickly become a massive humanitarian crisis. Even in some major cities, medical facilities lack the most basic supplies necessary to combat the virus. An estimated 43 percent of the population is malnourished, and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and hepatitis B are endemic.
The Kim regime seems to understand the risks—acting quickly to close its borders on January 21 despite its economic dependency on foreign currency from tourists and trade and smuggling over its porous border with China. North Korea also has quietly reached out for international aid. Shipments of testing kits and medical supplies are slowly making their way to the China–North Korea border, though strict quarantine measures in both countries are making the distribution of aid even more cumbersome and less transparent than usual.
Each of North Korea’s foreign interlocutors may use the crisis to seek some advantage in prospective talks. For South Korean President Moon Jae-in, humanitarian aid efforts are an important aspect of engagement that can build trust and encourage Pyongyang to return to negotiations. Some inter-Korean agreements have attempted to increase the speed of negotiations by outpacing the level of cooperation supported by Washington, and Moon may use the coronavirus crisis to build cooperation with North Korea around the denuclearization issue out of lockstep with the United States. China, too, may see an opportunity to meet North Korean requirements for both medical supplies and economic support in order to tighten links with the Kim regime and wrest more control over negotiations. The United States also appears to be looking to reinvigorate the personal correspondence and relationship between President Donald Trump and Kim. On March 22, Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and close aide, announced that Trump had sent a personal letter to her brother offering to cooperate to combat the pandemic.
But that faint attempt at cooperation has little chance of improving long-term relations with North Korea. Even with the looming potential for a massive humanitarian crisis, Kim did not accept Trump’s offer. Instead, Kim Yo Jong’s statement made clear that “excellent” relations between the two leaders do not equate to a positive relationship between the two countries. Unless the virus begins to take a significant toll on the country, North Korea likely will accept U.S. assistance only if it is related to sanctions relief. Washington might be willing to tweak sanctions to whitelist certain goods needed to help contain the virus without forcing aid organizations to seek an exemption, but such technical adjustments are not the sanctions relief that Pyongyang insists on, and the United States does not appear willing to offer broader sanctions relief without denuclearization.
The coronavirus may change daily life in North Korea dramatically and for the worse, and create some short-term opportunities for humanitarian cooperation. It may reshuffle relationships between Washington, Beijing, and Seoul with regard to negotiations with Pyongyang, but there is little chance of it unfreezing the deadlock. Even in the midst of a pandemic, both Trump and Kim will continue to demand much more than the other is willing to contemplate and in return for much less than the other sees as minimally necessary.