We can’t neglect North Korea for another year

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, speaks with military officials on Jan. 11 during an observation of what state media said was a hypersonic missile test-fire in North Korea. (AFP/KCNA via KNS) (Str)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, speaks with military officials on Jan. 11 during an observation of what state media said was a hypersonic missile test-fire in North Korea. (AFP/KCNA via KNS) (Str)

Kim Jong Un seems determined to force the world to pay attention to North Korea in 2022 by shooting off new and more dangerous missiles. Dealing with the Kim regime is the last thing Biden administration officials want to do, but they really have no choice. The good news is that there might be a new and creative way to break the increasingly dangerous diplomatic logjam.

Already this month, Pyongyang has conducted three tests of a new ballistic missile that it claims has hypersonic capability — which, if true, would severely undermine the protection of U.S. and allied regional missile defenses. The U.S. government has responded according to its usual pattern, by issuing a disapproving statement with allies at the United Nations and announcing new sanctions on North Korea’s weapons programs. What is still missing is a U.S. strategy aimed at solving the ever-worsening problem.

After some initial outreach, which Kim did not respond to, President Biden’s team says the door remains open. Privately, officials say they don’t see any good options for reengaging with North Korea after then-President Donald Trump’s highly publicized but ultimately failed policy of personal summits with Kim. Biden officials also note that North Korean officials have refused to meet, even informally, due to Kim’s draconian lockdown of the entire country during the covid-19 pandemic.

But Biden’s version of “strategic patience" is unsustainable. The North Korean missile and nuclear threat is growing apace, and North Korea has one of the largest unvaccinated populations in the world. For most of 2020, North Korea rejected offers of the Sinovac and AstroZeneca vaccines, citing concerns about their efficacy while insisting that there were zero cases of covid-19 in the country.

Kim’s lockdown forced all humanitarian organizations and most foreign diplomats to leave Pyongyang in 2020. But in late 2021, North Korea resumed accepting medical supplies from the World Health Organization and allowed the International Red Cross to conduct some anti-pandemic work inside the country. That presents a diplomatic opportunity, said several North Korea experts and former officials I spoke with this week.

“The one thing that is different right now is covid, and Kim Jong Un wakes up each day like every leader in the world and wants to know how to get his population vaccinated,” said Victor Cha, the National Security Council’s director for Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “There might be a humanitarian opening here that didn’t exist in the past that could lead to broader negotiations on the security side.”

Kim’s recent actions indicate that he might be ready to accept a larger covid-19 humanitarian package that would include the best vaccines (which are made in the United States) and therapeutics. The United States should at least test that proposition — not by offering this aid directly but by working through international organizations, said Stephen Biegun, who was the U.S. special representative to North Korea and deputy secretary of state in the Trump administration.

Kim may not be willing to negotiate on security issues regardless, Biegun said, because he could be waiting for a new South Korean president to take office in Seoul later this year. But even if humanitarian outreach doesn’t result in a diplomatic breakthrough, finding a way to get vaccines into North Korea is a public health imperative for the rest of us.

“North Korea is a country of 25 million people with severe health problems and the potential for being a petri dish for the development of variants,” Biegun said. “Every North Korean getting vaccinated is as important as every American, European, Chinese and African getting vaccinated.”

Biden has shown little inclination to devote energy to North Korea. The State Department’s special representative is also a full-time ambassador. The White House hasn’t even bothered to nominate anyone for the positions of North Korean human rights envoy or ambassador to South Korea. Even if the vaccine offer does kick-start diplomacy, the Biden team may not want to devote time and effort to another low-reward, high-risk set of negotiations with the Kim regime.

But it must return to the negotiating process, said former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit, who notes that what happens in Pyongyang doesn’t stay in Pyongyang. An arms race is heating up in Northeast Asia, and North Korea is winning, he said.

“It’s trench warfare, and it’s ugly and unglamorous and politically fraught, but the administration has to find a way to sit down with the North Koreans, and maybe the foot in the door is vaccinations,” said Wit, now a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center.

China uses vaccines to coerce and threaten other countries. The United States should use them to build bridges, starting in North Korea but then on a global scale. Right now, our neglect of North Korea and several other poor countries is harming our health security and our national security, which are intertwined more than ever.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

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