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Nearly a year after the coronavirus outbreak first gripped the city of Wuhan, with over 73 million cases reported worldwide, North Korea still claims that it has had zero confirmed cases of the virus. That is highly unlikely—North Korea, as usual, relies on concealment and disinformation to project an image of stability both internally and externally. But North Korea does appear to have avoided a serious outbreak, albeit at a high cost. Pyongyang’s efforts to stave off the virus through border closures and other containment measures have perhaps impacted its economy more severely than the international sanctions regime ever has, restricting many of the illicit activities it previously relied on to evade sanctions.

With even less visibility into the country than usual, the international community may not learn the full effect of these measures for some time. But the pandemic is providing a lesson on North Korea’s priorities that should inform the negotiations around its nuclear program. Pyongyang’s willingness to self-impose such punishing economic measures in the face of an external security threat casts further doubt on the effectiveness of sanctions as a coercive tool to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

North Korea Shuts Down

After efforts at rapprochement with North Korea ground to a halt in 2019, South Korean President Moon Jae-in saw a new opportunity to reinvigorate inter-Korean cooperation during the pandemic. Moon envisioned the crisis leading to cross-border coordination, assistance, and aid, as North Korea’s vulnerable public health system would inevitably require support. But Moon’s hopes have not been realized. During the pandemic, inter-Korean cooperation has not just stalled, but deteriorated. In June, North Korea cut off contact with South Korea and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office, a de facto embassy between the two countries.

Kathryn Botto
Kathryn Botto is a senior research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Asian security issues, with particular emphasis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. defense policy towards East Asia.
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In the near term, vaccine distribution may yet present an opening for cooperation, as North Korea will inevitably need to procure coronavirus vaccines from abroad, though it may prefer to do so from Russia or China. But thus far, Pyongyang has continuously rejected most foreign assistance, considering it a means of both highlighting the country’s vulnerabilities and potentially spreading the virus. Instead, to block what it perceives as both a public health threat and a potentially destabilizing national security threat, North Korea has closed itself off from the outside world to an extent remarkable even for such a famously opaque state.

North Korea originally closed its porous border with China on January 21, even before China locked down Wuhan. Over the summer, North Korea stepped up its controls, reportedly closing its borders to virtually all trade except pandemic-related aid. North Korea’s control measures are further intensifying this winter as concerns proliferate about the risk of indoor gatherings and other potential seasonal hazards. North Korean state media has even falsely claimed that snow and seasonal migratory birds could spread the virus.

According to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), North Korea recently locked down Pyongyang, its capital city of around 3 million, and other areas. It also instituted several measures not supported by science, such as prohibiting fishing and salt production in the ocean over fears that the water could be contaminated by the coronavirus. The country has also held up or halted shipments of food, aid, and other goods amid paranoia that foreign goods can spread the virus. The NIS reported at least one execution of an official who violated pandemic countermeasures. Meanwhile, in September, North Korean soldiers fatally shot a South Korean government official and burned the body after the official was found floating in the ocean near the two countries’ disputed maritime border in what was believed to be a deeply misguided antivirus control measure.

The international community has little visibility on what impact these measures have had on the ground. But at the very least, they have disrupted supply chains of food and other necessities, endangered the livelihoods of North Koreans that depend on informal trade with China, and impeded the efforts of international organizations working in the country, which have been forced to withdraw most or all of their staff due to quarantine measures.

No Help Wanted

Restrictions on foreigners in North Korea have made expats’ jobs and daily lives so difficult—with strict lockdowns in Pyongyang, shortages of imported goods, and even a prohibition on diplomatic mail—that the already small community of foreign aid workers has been reduced to single digits. Reportedly, only two UN workers and one Irish NGO worker remain in the country, down from around seventy UN and foreign NGO workers at the beginning of the year. A lack of transparency has always impeded aid efforts in North Korea, but with the number of diplomatic staff and aid workers so diminished, this severe dearth of visibility might affect foreign aid to the country well after the pandemic has subsided. There is no guarantee if or when foreign workers will be allowed back into the country. And a lack of data and access has already caused North Korea to be left out of a December 2020 annual report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which identifies countries with the greatest need and suggests priorities for humanitarian assistance plans.

To make matters worse, North Korea is facing two crises at once. In August and September, the country experienced severe flooding from multiple typhoons that damaged nearly 100,000 acres of crops and at least 16,000 homes, as well as other buildings and infrastructure. The natural disaster left “thousands” without homes and at least seventy-six dead. Facing food insecurity and extensive flood damage, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un insisted that his country still could not accept international aid due to the risk that it might expose North Koreans to the virus.

While these measures may have prevented an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak, they have done so at significant economic cost. An estimated 95 percent of North Korea’s official trade, and the majority of its unofficial trade, is done over the border with China. With the border closed, North Korea’s official trade with China in the first nine months of 2020 was down 73 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to the Korea International Trade Association. That fall in trade is substantially higher than the 57 percent drop that took place the first nine months of 2018, after the imposition of harsh international sanctions that came into force the previous year. Moreover, North Korea’s self-imposed isolation also has entailed shutting down illicit cross-border trade and shipping that have long eluded sanctions enforcement. North Korea has essentially cut off the few lifelines its sanctions-embattled economy had left before the pandemic.

Conclusion

The pandemic hasn’t been the boon for inter-Korean cooperation that Moon had hoped. But it has also called into question the merits of the opposite approach: squeezing the North Korean economy so tightly with sanctions that it is coerced into forgoing its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic relief. For the past fourteen years, sanctions have failed to force North Korea to make that strategic decision, and many experts have derided their efficacy. In its approach to the pandemic, North Korea has further revealed the level of hardship, self-imposed or otherwise, that it is willing to endure so as to mitigate an external security threat.

While the pandemic is unlikely to transform the course of negotiations or present an opportunity for conflict resolution, it should shape how U.S. and South Korean policymakers view North Korea’s priorities going forward. Whether in the face of a global public health crisis or U.S. pressure, the Kim regime’s national security interests will continue to trump economic interests. Without a doubt, North Korea wants sanctions relief. But it is clearer than ever that, as long as Pyongyang perceives a threat to its security, economic coercion will not be enough to convince it to denuclearize. Economic incentives, too, cannot change North Korea’s strategic calculus without strong corresponding security guarantees to mitigate vulnerabilities to what it perceives as its greatest existential threat—the United States.