External threats such as pandemics remind all of us the need for global solidarity. The more we cooperate, coordinate, and share information and resources the safer we all are. In times of international health emergencies, adversaries should put down their sabers and be willing to find ways to work together. As we put aside hostilities to fight together against the virus, perhaps new diplomatic doors can open and lead to a path to permanent peace.
– Dr. Kee B. Park, Harvard Medical School
As of March 28, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected over 192 countries and territories around the globe, infecting over 600,000 people and claiming nearly 30,000 lives. In the midst of one of the worst pandemics in recent history, one country still has not publicly confirmed a single case: North Korea.
North Korea closed its borders in January, restricting social activities and placing thousands under quarantine, but it has yet to announce a single confirmed case of COVID-19. On March 27, North Korean health authorities selectively lifted quarantine in some areas exhibiting low infection rates, but thousands still remain confined.
Many are skeptical of the apparent lack of confirmed infections in the North, including USFK commander General Robert Abrams, who is “fairly certain” that the pandemic has spread there despite Pyongyang having declared zero confirmed cases to date. On March 27, the South Korean Prime Minister stated that the outlook for the North is likely “not good”, agreeing with the assessment of South Korean doctors following the situation. They point to Pyongyang’s March 20 announcement regarding the release of quarantine restrictions from 4,000 residents of Pyongan Namdo, 1,430 of Gangwon, 2,630 of Jagangdo and 380 foreigners. Based on these and other compiled data sources, South Korean analysts estimate at least 8,300 cases of COVID-19 in the North, with many potential deaths.
Sanctions and the pandemic: a deadly combination
While some experts argue that North Korea‘s healthcare sector is in a better position than many believe due to the relatively high ratio of health workers in the population, the reality is that the North is highly vulnerable to health crises due to having been subjected to a wide range of long-term economic and financial sanctions. These sanctions, which include bans on metal goods that block the entry of a range of necessary medical equipment without special permission, have caused a critical shortage of life-saving supplies. Especially hard hit are the more than 10 million North Koreans–40 percent of the population–who are already in need of humanitarian aid.
Mindful of the grim prospects for the North in the midst of the outbreak, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed inter-Korean cooperation in the fields of medicine and public health during his March 1 independence day address. On March 4, Chairman Kim responded by stating that he “wholeheartedly wish[ed] that the health of our brothers and sisters in the South are protected”. On March 22, President Trump sent a letter to Kim, expressing his willingness to help the North battle the coronavirus. While these gestures are positive signs during a time of diplomatic impasse on the Korean Peninsula, they fall short of offering concrete and immediate solutions that can directly help avert the worst possible scenario in the North.
Under international sanctions and self-embargo due to the pandemic, North Korea cannot receive meaningful assistance from the outside, lacks indigenous resources and technology, and is attempting to overcome the crisis on its own. At a time when even wealthy nations such as the US are reaching out for help to fight the pandemic, as evinced by President Trump’s request for South Korean test kits, Pyongyang would be hard-pressed to handle this crisis on its own. In order to prevent devastating consequences of North Koreans infected with COVID – 19, the following steps must be taken immediately:
+ South Korea must send COVID – 19 test kits to North Korea as soon as possible.
+ The United States must lift unilateral sanctions barring access to food, essential health supplies and medical support to North Korea.
+ The UN and international community must authorize the export of essential medical equipment and supplies to North Korea.
Implementing an inter-Korean health and humanitarian regime
In response to President Trump’s request for South Korea testing kits, President Moon pledged “maximum support” for bilateral cooperation to fight the pandemic, and South Korea is currently preparing to export testing kits to the United States. It seems self-evident that South Korea should demonstrate the same commitment to helping safeguard the lives of its brothers and sisters in the North. The two Koreas can look to the precedent set by East and West Germany, who implemented a public health treaty 10 years prior to unification and created a shared system for addressing public health crises. As the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games created a historic opportunity for inter-Korea cooperation and led to two US-DPRK summits, inter-Korean cooperation during the pandemic can create momentum for peace, which at this juncture, would realize immediate life-saving dividends.
On March 27, the Financial Times reported that North Korea is clandestinely asking officials from other countries for assistance in waiving international sanctions restricting the shipment of medical supplies. International aid groups working inside the country have been calling for an easing of restrictions as well, warning of the grave human toll that would be exacted by a wide-scale outbreak. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already urged the waiving of sanctions in order to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and medical support, and UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has called for flexible authorization for essential and medical equipment and supplies, noting that “the populations in [countries under sanctions] are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions, and to varying degrees have already been living in a precarious situation for prolonged periods”.
also to create enormous diplomatic goodwill with the DPRK while adhering to basic humanitarian principles which were echoed most recently in President Trump’s offer of assistance to Chairman Kim. Offers of aid are welcome, but more material and wide-ranging benefits could be realized by selectively lifting sanctions that impact medical equipment and aid in order to at least refrain from further worsening the outlook for a vulnerable population that is already hampered in its ability to respond to the pandemic. It is quite simply the right thing to do.
Dr. Simone Chun sits on the Steering Committee for the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea and CodePink Advisory Board, and is an Associate of the Korea Policy Institute and an active member of the Korean Peace Network.