The novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated geopolitical tensions first in Northeast Asia, with the original outbreak in China, and now around the world as the United States, Europe and many others battle their own epidemics and global markets spiral downward. Leaders among the big powers—particularly the US, China, and Russia—already trying to exploit this global crisis to gain advantage and exert power instead of coming together to fight a common threat. This climate adds another layer of uncertainty over the Korean Peninsula where an authoritarian leader is trying to exert his power at a time when every world leader is preoccupied with the viral disease that is simultaneously testing their leadership and competence.
The pandemic in the context of intensified US-China competition — have complicated an already challenging diplomatic and security situation on the Korean Peninsula this year. Prospects for diplomacy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are now even poorer as key capitals will be in coronavirus crisis management mode for the next several months, as they should, and consumed with geopolitics and geo-economics. Dealing with traditional long-standing security issues regarding the Korean Peninsula, including nuclear diplomacy, will be put on hold at least until key stakeholders–the US, South Korea, China, and Japan–are able to manage the current pandemic with more ease.
The virus has worsened existing geopolitical rifts among Northeast Asian countries, which will also overshadow or interrupt attention to the North Korean nuclear issue. The virus is also exacerbating domestic political battles in South Korea, the US, and Japan that will further consume leaders’ attention. These strains will make policy coordination and consultation even more difficult among key countries, let alone face-to-face meetings because of viral infection and transmission concerns.
This environment, if mismanaged, is ripe for a potential security crisis. While China, South Korea, Japan, and the US scramble to contain the disease, North Korea has reminded the world that it will continue to pursue its strategic plans for 2020–despite even a deadly outbreak that has put its own population’s health at risk. On March 2, 8, and 21, Pyongyang fired several rounds of projectiles that US officials say appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles and conducted what North Korea called artillery strike drills using a multiple-rocket launch system. It is not yet clear whether these were tests of any components of a “new strategic weapon” that Pyongyang warned last December it would unveil this year.
The tests nevertheless suggest North Korea had both military and political objectives. It is commonly believed that Pyongyang’s primary driver for its testing schedule is its calculation of what timing will achieve the greatest political impact vis-à-vis the US, but often times, it chooses dates based simply on when it is technologically ready to try out its capability. The latter may have been the case for the recent tests. They seem to fall in line with Pyongyang’s plans to further refine its technology to advance its nuclear weapons capability to defend against what it believes to be America’s goal to invade the country or topple the regime. After all, North Korea is “tightening [its] belts” this year in its “long confrontation” with the U.S., as declared by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last December.
At the same time, Pyongyang’s political objectives, and even timing, might have been geared more to its domestic audience than an international one. Pyongyang may be trying to reinforce order domestically by projecting that it is still a strong, normally-functioning country despite possible disarray at home; state media has reported thousands of North Koreans were under “medical observation,” suggesting North Korea is battling its own coronavirus outbreak. As for its international objective, perhaps the weapons tests were Pyongyang’s attempt to guard against external perceptions of its weaknesses that might flow from its need to attract humanitarian and medical aid from the international community.
An overarching concern, in addition to the steady advancement in nuclear weapons capability delivered by each test, is the question of whether Pyongyang might take advantage of a vulnerable global situation—due to other countries’ preoccupation with the coronavirus and fear of spread to political leaders and military personnel—by engaging in more provocative actions. And would it feel compelled to do so especially when US-South Korean combined military drills have been postponed after the first US serviceman stationed in South Korea tested positive for the coronavirus? On the one hand, perhaps the regime might try to raise the stakes before South Korea’s general elections in April and US presidential elections in November to extract more concessions. On the other hand, the coronavirus epidemic may be so serious in North Korea itself that it could discourage Pyongyang from taking the risk of a crisis with the US were it to test more advanced weapons systems. In this sense, Pyongyang’s objectives for continued short-range missile tests might be aimed at his key constituents by showcasing Kim’s confidence and power that the US president will not react to them.
Absent the pandemic, 2020 already looked to be a tough year for nuclear diplomacy, with very limited openings, if any. One reason is that North Korea already signaled plans to implement a hard line toward Washington this year, continue its nuclear weapons development, and keep the cost high for credible negotiations towards a future deal. Pyongyang rejected a variety of US proposals in Stockholm last October to begin implementing the 2018 Singapore summit agreement by reading a pre-scripted rejection speech (which is said to have included accusing the US of a hostile policy toward it since the Korean War) before real negotiations could unfold. It continues to refuse direct talks with Washington despite repeated American calls, through public and private messages, for dialogue. Last December in Seoul, US envoy Steve Biegun urged Pyongyang to return to talks, stressing "It is time for us to do our jobs. Let's get this done. We are here and you know how to reach us."
The November US presidential elections would factor heavily into North Korea’s calculations. Pyongyang has experience signing an agreement with one American administration only to be overturned by the next, like when the Bush administration scrapped the 1994 Agreed Framework reached between the Clinton administration and North Korea. Pyongyang sees American foreign policy as inconsistent, which it has nevertheless learned to take advantage of by continuing to press on with nuclear weapons development and ignoring its external environment until a future US administration presents an appealing offer. It is plausible that North Korea might prefer Trump’s reelection because of his unconventional style and propensity to offer Pyongyang benefits beyond the comfort levels of traditional American presidents, even to the detriment of some allies.
Exploring a roundabout way to break the stalemate through revitalized inter-Korean dialogue or cooperation—a common consideration in the past—does not seem to be a viable option for the time being either because Pyongyang has cut Seoul out of the nuclear diplomatic process. The North has apparently been upset that South Korea was unable to convince the US to lift sanctions in return for dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex.
Several related yet non-nuclear issues would have affected nuclear diplomacy and alliance coordination in 2020 as well. For one, US separate negotiations with South Korea and Japan this year on how to share stationing costs for American troops in both countries have already caused tension in both alliances and doubts about America’s security commitment to them because of Trump’s price demands an “America First” policy. Cost-sharing is an issue that drives Trump’s thinking and any friction in negotiations brought to his awareness could lead to a rash decision that heightens his allies’ fears of abandonment and insecurity, in turn, tempting them to explore their own nuclear options and potentially leading to a nuclear arms race in the region.
Second, South Korea’s general elections in April would entice the Moon government to take on foreign policy positions that help secure votes, which could cause tensions with Washington because its progressive base generally prioritizes inter-Korean relations over the US alliance. Seoul’s push in January for tourism projects to North Korea was already raising questions about policy discord between the allies on how best to encourage Pyongyang to take steps toward denuclearization. The general elections and his five-year presidential term limit drive South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s thinking. Seoul has its own political calendar for Korean Peninsular affairs, which is an important factor affecting nuclear diplomacy because Moon has tried (and continues to try) to be a facilitator between Washington and Pyongyang—Moon needs progress on the nuclear issue to achieve his own Korean peace agenda. However, if he leans too far toward one side, it could affect US-South Korea coordination or inter-Korean relations, in turn, affecting the direction of nuclear diplomacy.
To top it off, the intensifying US-China competition has serious implications for the Korean Peninsula. Historically, the fate of the Korean Peninsula has been decided by the big powers, causing South Koreans today to fear becoming collateral damage in a US-Chinese strategic competition. Seoul feels pressured to choose between its American security patron and giant Chinese economic partner, a choice that would inevitably affect alliance coordination on the nuclear issue.