As the coronavirus has now claimed 23,820 lives worldwide, there are growing concerns about the situation in North Korea. Although North Korea has not officially reported any cases of COVID-19, global health experts believe it has already spread there as the government is requesting test kits, masks and other emergency aid. An outbreak of COVID-19 in North Korea would be disastrous given the country’s isolation, socioeconomic conditions, and severely weakened health care system—conditions that are directly related to US foreign policy.
The urgency of the situation calls for drastic changes to business as usual. We can turn the COVID-19 crisis into a critical opportunity for international cooperation on the Korean Peninsula by reallocating resources toward protecting human health and reviving the stalled diplomacy between the US and North Korea.
There are two concrete policy actions that can be taken now to expedite the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid to address COVID-19: lift sanctions and permanently cancel US-South Korea joint military exercises.
"Building trust is crucial to diplomacy, and so is working together to solve a global pandemic that affects us all. "On March 27, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire “to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” When warring parties “silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes,” Guterres said, such conditions “help create corridors for life-saving aid.” Nothing could be more fitting than for North Korea.
Thankfully, the US and South Korea decided to postpone US-South Korea military drills earlier this month following a meeting by both defense ministers. That action was prudent — and permanently canceling the exercises would be even better.
The United States and South Korea have long maintained these exercises are defensive in nature, although President Trump has called them “war games” and “provocative.” In fact, military exercises and broad-based sanctions—which impede the delivery of much-needed medical supplies to deal with the epidemic — are counterproductive and fail to get the United States anywhere near its purported goals of denuclearization or improving human rights. The DPRK has repeatedly cited America’s ongoing “hostile policy” as the main factor driving the continued development of its nuclear weapons program. In fact, every time the US has halted military exercises, North Korea has taken reciprocal steps to engage and de-escalate tensions.
In the face of the global public health and economic crisis, the US and South Korea should redirect resources intended for massive military drills to fighting the crisis facing us all: containing the spread of the coronavirus. The benefits would go far beyond saving millions of dollars for both the US and South Korea by protecting lives while reducing tensions and hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.
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In addition, the US and South Korea should work with the UN Security Council to lift sanctions that hamper the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid to North Korea. “I have seen how sanctions have restricted the access to the most basic medicines and medical equipment in the isolated country,” says Dr. Kee Park, a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon who works to deliver humanitarian aid in North Korea. “This has made treating infectious diseases, chronic diseases, and injuries much more difficult.”
We must work to build up North Korea’s health care facilities, rather than use them as “leverage” in peace and denuclearization talks. If COVID-19 spreads widely in the country, it will devastate and overwhelm the already dilapidated health care infrastructure, keep the pandemic running longer, and risk re-infecting South Korea and China. South Korea is ready to send test kits, but the sanctions regime makes cooperation between the two Koreas impossible.
Fortunately, steps have been taken to ease sanctions and offer aid. In February, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was granted an exemption to United Nations Security Council sanctions, allowing life-saving humanitarian aid to be delivered. And recently, President Trump sent a letter to North Korea offering aid to combat the coronavirus, which was disclosed by Kim Jong Un’s sister in the DPRK state news media. According to Kim Yo Jong, Trump’s letter outlined plans “to propel the relations between the two countries… and expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work.”
Building trust is crucial to diplomacy, and so is working together to solve a global pandemic that affects us all.
COVID-19 shows we can’t go back to isolating countries and obstructing critical humanitarian supplies in the name of geopolitical negotiations. The stakes in terms of human life and suffering are too high now.
Permanently canceling military drills would not be unprecedented, nor would it affect US-ROK military readiness, but it would be a positive step towards achieving peace. With the coronavirus threatening lives across borders, now is the time to come together and prioritize health and peace — for everyone’s sake.