A trolley bus is disinfected amid fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo taken on February 22, 2020 and released by Kyodo February 23, 2020. Picture taken February 22, 2020. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
The case for U.S.-North Korea diplomacy to combat the coronavirus

U.S. and international sanctions have crushed North Korea’s health care system, making it harder to deal with the coronavirus.

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has become a massive threat to the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged for the second consecutive day on Tuesday, as the news about American susceptibility to the coronavirus made national headlines. This may be the beginning of an economic downturn, rather than a blip, given the size of the economies that are grappling with the virus, such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Italy. And now the virus has reached American troops. A 23-year-old American soldier stationed in South Korea recently tested positive for COVID-19 — the first U.S. service member to contract the virus.

Indeed, the coronavirus constitutes both a security and economic threat to the United States. It lies in the interest of the United States to eliminate the virus, even in countries with which it has hostile relations. North Korea is a case in point.

Some American policymakers view North Korea as a distant problem. But infectious diseases know no borders, as the current situation shows. North Korea’s close proximity to China, the decrepit state of its healthcare sector, and the high rate of malnutrition among its people all make North Korea extraordinarily susceptible to the coronavirus. Its impact could also spill over into East Asia, including to South Korea where 28,500 U.S. service members are stationed. 

Unfortunately, the international community has no idea if the coronavirus is spreading inside North Korea. As of yesterday, there were 80,994 confirmed cases and 2,760 deaths from the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by Johns Hopkins CSSE, mostly concentrated in East Asia, Italy, and Iran. There are currently no known cases of COVID-19 from North Korea, which shares 900 miles of border with China, home of the largest confirmed cases of coronavirus in the world. The fact that we know nothing about the level of infection or deaths within North Korea is extremely problematic and, left unchanged, could have serious public health implications. According to Choi Jung-hoon, a North Korean neurologist who defected to South Korea in 2012, “Past epidemics that originated in China have always spread to North Korea, and vice versa.” During previous outbreaks, such as SARS, he says, cases in North Korea often went unreported. 

Responding to this threat to the U.S. national security is complicated by Washington’s sanctions-centric North Korea policy and its inability to look beyond the nuclear issue. For example, at yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy hearing on North Korea, only about five minutes were devoted to COVID-19. Of the three representatives who testified, two were from the same think tank (Center for Strategic and International Studies), and two had formerly worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. There was hardly any debate on the impact of international sanctions on North Korea’s healthcare infrastructure or its ability to address pandemics. What’s more, the current U.S. policy has contributed to the weak healthcare system in North Korea. As Ambassador Bob King stated at the hearing, the global sanctions regime against North Korea have made it difficult to deliver life-saving aid to the North Korean people, whether they are test kits, masks, or sending trained personnel to conduct tests in-country for maximum accuracy. 

Dr. Kee Park, a lecturer on Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School with firsthand knowledge of the North Korean health system described to me, “When faced with an international public health emergency, the idea that permission should be obtained by highly-regarded international organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF prior to delivering urgent protective and diagnostic supplies is unethical and morally objectionable.” U.S.-led economic sanctions against North Korea have contributed to a weakened healthcare system inside the country, which now threatens U.S. troops and U.S. national security interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States and North Korea must look beyond the nuclear issue and recognize that there’s a common threat. Diplomacy is essential for addressing this and other transnational threats that require coordination, communication, and problem-solving. Both countries must address the coronavirus without delay. Specifically, Pyongyang should be more open and transparent about the impact of the coronavirus on its people and be willing to accept aid. Washington needs to be more creative and ensure that sanctions and North Korea’s isolation does not prevent it from receiving medical aid or hamper its ability to respond to that pandemic. After this ordeal has ended, a public debate on the impact of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the North Korean healthcare system is in order, as the status quo clearly is not serving U.S. national security interests.  

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