Trans-Pacific View | Opinion

How Anti-Coronavirus Aid to North Korea Can Restart Negotiations

Coming together amid a global pandemic could bring U.S.-North Korea negotiations back on track.

By John Dale Grover for
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How Anti-Coronavirus Aid to North Korea Can Restart Negotiations
Credit: Flickr via White House

North Korea is set to experience a severe crisis from the spread of COVID-19. Although Pyongyang denies the coronavirus has spread there, Yonhap News estimates nearly 10,000 are in quarantine and NK News claims 180 North Korean soldiers have died. This is why it was a good idea for President Donald Trump to write a letter offering aid to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Working together against the pandemic would be a chance to arrest its spread and also restart denuclearization talks.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for sanctions to be eased to allow emergency medical supplies into countries including North Korea. Currently, most trade with North Korea is banned by the United Nations Security Council and by U.S. laws and regulations. If a government or nonprofit wants to send humanitarian aid to North Korea, they must not only get Pyongyang to agree — which is not a sure thing — but they have to go through the United Nations 1718 Sanctions Committee.

UN Security Council sanctions cover a wide variety of goods and services that cannot be traded because they have potential military uses. Those wishing to send aid must explain to the United Nations 1718 Sanctions Committee in great detail what they are sending, how much, to whom, and why. The large amount of paperwork also requires, among other things, goods and services specifications, the reason why an exception is being requested, and the dates of any transfers. So far, exemptions have been granted for organizations including the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and the World Health Organization. Additionally, countries such as Italy, France, and Switzerland are actively sending aid as well.

However, the problem is this assistance is not enough and the current process can take a long time. Washington has already been working hard at ensuring the 1718 Committee can process all requests quickly. However, more should be done and — once America has gotten a better handle on the pandemic at home — it should send another offer of assistance to Kim. As of this writing, Pyongyang has declined help from Washington but that may well change. Seoul’s Bank of Korea estimates that North Korea’s GDP shrunk two years in a row from 2017 and 2018. As the border with China is now sealed due to the virus, trade has plummeted and North Korea’s economy has likely further collapsed. Given that their hospitals are in poor shape and many North Koreans are malnourished, lives are literally at stake.

Sadly, North Korea is ranked 193rd of 195 countries in the 2019 Global Health Security Index created by Johns Hopkins University, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Consequently, Pyongyang is not at all prepared for a widespread outbreak despite rushing to implement measures including closing schools for a month and suspending foreign tourism.

During this disaster, Kim will likely be tempted to act like everything is normal and he is fully in control of the situation. Indeed, that is already what he is largely doing. That means holding military drills and continuing to conduct missile tests. In fact, he may even judge that the time is right to try and get away with testing and perfecting his intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, Kim also knows he will likely need help from America to deal with sanctions exemptions.

Helping to contain and wipe out COVID-19 — no matter where it is — makes sense, as it is a global threat. While doing so, America risks little in restarting talks with North Korea, as returning Kim to the negotiating table can help moderate his behavior. In other words, it makes perfect sense for America to offer aid to Pyongyang.

Furthermore, the United States can do so without endangering the general sanctions regime or hurting American interests. If anything, Trump’s offer advances U.S. interests in preventing things from getting further out of hand in Northeast Asia. Policymakers in Washington should care about the plight of innocent North Koreans. But they should additionally realize that if Kim fails to deal with the virus, it could spread elsewhere, making it a problem for everyone. Finally, should COVID-19 cause too much damage and death in North Korea, there is a real risk of chaotic regime collapse or of Kim acting out in an attempt to distract from his failures.

Once Washington starts beating back the virus at home, Trump should send another letter to Kim. Once America has a handle on COVID-19 within its borders, Washington will be in a better position — experience and supply wise — to assist should Pyongyang accept it.

John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities. He is also an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and a Korean studies fellow at the Center for the National Interest.