For more than two years, isolated North Korea claimed success in keeping out Covid and even rebuffed multiple offers of vaccines, calling them unnecessary. Last month, that changed.
In a series of urgent dispatches, North Korea’s state media announced that an unspecified fever was spreading “explosively”. The nation went into lockdown. More than four million cases have been reported, with dozens of deaths.
It’s a frightening prospect for an unvaccinated, undernourished nation of 25 million people. But bad news does not escape North Korea without a reason. Finally acknowledging a viral outbreak may be part of a strategy by its leader, Kim Jong-un, to re-engage with the outside world. The world should be ready to engage, too.
Since the collapse of his nuclear negotiations with President Donald Trump in 2019, followed soon by Covid’s global spread, Mr. Kim has retreated into an isolation that is deep even by North Korea’s hermetic standards. This has been devastating to its people. It’s also a threat to peace and security beyond the Korean Peninsula: He has spent the intervening time shoring up his power — and expanding his nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is now believed to possess dozens of nuclear devices and appears poised to carry out a seventh nuclear test. It has test-launched dozens of missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions this year alone — including, recently, a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile designed to reach the United States.
The saber rattling is nothing new. North Korea’s weapons program has vexed four of President Biden’s predecessors, each of whom wielded combinations of various incentives and sanctions, ultimately failing to halt the production of nuclear warheads and missiles.
So why admit a Covid outbreak now? Just as Mr. Kim is sending a message with his missile launches, he’s sending another by admitting the outbreak.
First of all, don’t believe for a second that Covid only just appeared in North Korea. The virus was circulating in China — which had extensive cross-border trade with North Korea and regular flights between Beijing and Pyongyang — for weeks before North Korea sealed its borders in late January 2020.
Neither should we put too much stock in North Korea’s more recent claims of success in battling the outbreak. Covid is likely to be “getting worse, not better”, Michael Ryan, the emergencies director for the World Health Organization, said last week. The W.H.O. has expressed concern about an unchecked spread among unvaccinated North Koreans.
It could be that cases were rising so rapidly in the capital, Pyongyang, that the outbreak had to be acknowledged. But there is most likely also an element of political timing involved in announcing the outbreak just before a recent trip by Mr. Biden to South Korea and Japan.
Mr. Kim may be pursuing a dual-track strategy. The missile launches maintain tension with the United States and South Korea — which helps him to justify building up his nuclear arsenal, putting him in a stronger position for any future standoffs or negotiations.
And the Covid confession serves as a face-saving way to secure humanitarian help and other goods from Beijing — which is always concerned about its neighbor devolving into crisis — after Mr. Kim rejected China’s previous offers of vaccines. Just days after announcing the outbreak, North Korea reportedly sent three cargo planes to Shenyang, China, to pick up emergency supplies. More arrived recently by rail. It may be receiving Chinese vaccines already.
Help is surely needed. North Koreans have suffered chronic food shortages ever since a massive famine in the 1990s. Fruit, vegetables and meat are luxuries for most people, and malnutrition shows in the splotchy skin, sunken cheekbones and gaunt frames of the many people I encountered across the country during my years reporting on the ground. The past two years of border closures blocking the flow of food, medicine and other supplies has made survival tougher.
Most hospitals and clinics do not have heat, medicine or supplies. I’ve seen North Korean nurses dump syringes in a wash basin and rinse them in disinfectant for reuse. In winter, doctors and patients bundle up in heavy quilted jackets because heat is reserved for the operating room.
One North Korean doctor told me years ago that she relied on preventive care because she had no medicine to offer patients, not even for diarrhea, which she said kills scores of North Korean children every year. Hand-drawn posters that lined the walls of her rural clinic suggested eating two bulbs of raw garlic, drinking liquor fortified with an egg and sliced ginseng or sipping tepid water with sliced spring onions and sugar to ward off colds and the flu.
Outside the capital, most North Koreans living in mountainous areas can’t even reach provincial hospitals because of poor roads and transport, the doctor told me. They are most likely ailing in isolation.
Prospects for new talks with North Korea look unlikely at the moment. Mr. Biden has made clear he will not court Mr. Kim the way Donald Trump did. During Mr. Biden’s visit to South Korea, a reporter asked the president if he had a message for Mr. Kim. His answer was a terse “Hello. Period”. Mr. Biden appears intent on keeping North Korea contained while leaving the door open for diplomacy when the time is right.
Mr. Kim may not be speaking now to Washington, Seoul or Tokyo. But if he is accepting help from Beijing, the United States and its allies must find a way to work with China over their shared interest in curbing a viral outbreak among the vulnerable North Korean population — and re-engaging Pyongyang in nuclear negotiations. If not, the United States risks being excluded from a rare political opening.
In the throes of its deadly 1990s famine, North Korea made an unprecedented appeal for international food aid. Resulting assistance from the United States and others helped bring the country to the nuclear negotiating table. North Korea’s Covid moment may present a similar opportunity.
Jean H. Lee opened The Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012 and made dozens of reporting trips to North Korea from 2008 to 2017. She is a co-host of the “Lazarus Heist” podcast from the BBC World Service and a scholar affiliated with the Wilson Center in Washington.