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Why Trump should use COVID-19 to kickstart talks with North Korea

Restarting diplomacy with North Korea not only reduces the threat of war, but it can also help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The diplomatic stalemate between the United States and North Korea is getting increasingly perilous. This was evidenced by North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, the fourth test this month. As the United States continues to sanction Pyongyang, North Korea is advancing its nuclear and missile technology, which is the opposite of what the sanctions are supposed to achieve. President Trump needs a game-changer to restart diplomacy with North Korea — and the global COVID-19 pandemic could paradoxically be just the opportunity he needs.

North Korea is already vulnerable to the pandemic because of its minimal healthcare infrastructure and lack of access to basic diagnostic equipment. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has called for rolling back international sanctions against North Korea and Iran, recognizing that economically isolated countries such as North Korea seriously undermine global efforts to contain COVID-19. North Korea is in need of America’s help, and at the same time, the United States has an interest in preventing the virus from festering in the Korean peninsula.

With creative diplomacy, Washington can use the pandemic crisis to expand this narrow common interest into a broader diplomatic opening on the nuclear front. Here’s why: 

First, more ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang means that it is improving its technical capabilities. Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has tested more missiles and diversified testing sites, compared to his father Kim Jong Il or his grandfather Kim Il Sung. If North Korea believes that diplomacy with the United States is dead, it may feel emboldened to test more short-range ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan, or long-range ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States. Such provocations would make it more likely for the U.S. to retaliate, whether it is through increased sanctions or even military action. The longer we wait, the more likely that a serious miscalculation could spiral into conflict, putting 78,000 American troops stationed in South Korea and Japan in grave danger.

Second, the ongoing pandemic is a case for greater inter-Korea cooperation, which could over time lead to a more stable Korean peninsula. South Korea has shown the world that it can handle COVID-19, not only lowering infection rates by “flattening the curve” but also generating enough quarantine supplies to send to other countries. South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has statedthat if North Korea requests help in quarantine efforts, South Korea will “positively review it.”

The United States should welcome the South Korean government’s willingness to help the North. President Trump should facilitate South Korea’s assistance by calling for an exemption of certain U.N. sanctions that have prevented inter-Korea cooperation to date. While it is not yet clear which specific U.N. sanctions would need to be lifted for the flow of medical aid and medical professionals needed to accurately diagnose and contain COVID-19 inside North Korea, they could include sanctions related to transportation and scientific cooperation. Cooperation on COVID-19 could save lives and generate trust, lowering the possibility of confrontation that would involve American lives. 

Finally, the longer the United States pursues a policy of maximum insolation on North Korea, the more Pyongyang will have no choice but to rely on China, its biggest trading partner as well as the biggest source of energy and food aid. Pyongyang's over-reliance on Beijing as its economic lifeline could over time erode the possibility of a positive relationship with the United States, even though it is in Pyongyang’s strategic interest to find alternative sources of security and to blunt potential Chinese overreach. 

A more security-independent North Korea may be less hostile to the United States seeking to contribute to greater balance and stability in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing is already seeking to grow its influence on North Korea, using multilateral institutions such as the United Nations to support its positions. Most recently, Beijing and Moscow introduced a joint proposal to lift select U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea out of humanitarian concerns. Rather than dismiss the proposal, the United States should have seriously considered it and offered constructive ideas to strengthen it. 

The world is becoming smaller and more intertwined, as COVID-19 demands collaboration and coordination amongst countries, including among allies, competitors, and adversaries. The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to jumpstart negotiations between the United States and North Korea that is not just good for nuclear diplomacy. Renewed talks will also help the international fight against the deadly virus as a whole, which ultimately serves U.S. interests. It also has the added benefits of testing North Korea’s sincerity in improving bilateral ties with the United States, as well as creating an atmosphere that would allow for more inter-Korea cooperation. All sides should seize this moment to affirm our common humanity before it’s too late. 

President Donald J. Trump, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un, and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in talk together Sunday, June 30, 2019, outside Freedom House at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
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