South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee In-young has alerted the world to North Korea’s coronavirus crisis by saying that “coronavirus is crippling production and supply chains for crops…which will likely cause extreme famine...” North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has recently confirmed these fears by comparing the looming crisis with the famine of the 1990s. At the same time U.S. State Department has drafted a review of America’s North Korea strategy and President Biden is expected to announce the new policy by the end of March. How should the new strategy consider the precarious situation in North Korea?
After failed top-level dialogue, U.S. policy towards North Korea is now based on military deterrence against North Korean military aggression, and economic sanctions to persuade the country into nuclear disarmament. The effect of the coronavirus crisis affects the latter policy by making sanctions much tougher to tolerate. Empirical studies have found the level of hurt to the target of sanctions imperative to the successfulness of sanctions. According to President Biden’s deputy Iran envoy, Richard Nephiew, hurt from sanctions increases public frustration and pushes governments into compromises and democratization.
Yet Empirical research disagrees, however, with Nephiew and suggests that when sanctions hurt the entire population, as American sanctions on North Korea do, then those sanctions increase national resolve and strengthen autocratic narratives of a common external enemy. Furthermore, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, Idriss Jazairy claims that sanctions which deteriorate the humanitarian situation and force other states to join them are difficult to justify legally.
President Biden’s new policy on North Korea is expected to coordinate U.S. efforts better with South Korea. South Korea’s policy at the time of coronavirus emergency has been more compassionate. Unification Minister Lee has even said that “When vaccines and treatment for COVID-19 are developed and distributed in the near future, a new environment will be created in the Korean Peninsula in which people and goods can come and go…” For South Korea, the coronavirus crisis must be met with compassion rather than just with pressure.
Compassion could work better for U.S. objectives, too. It did during the famine of the 1990s, when the U.S. gave unconditional food aid to North Korea and managed to keep North Korean nuclear program frozen. In February 2012 similar food aid was tied to North Korean concessions and consequently progress in nuclear program could not be halted. If instead of exacerbating the crisis the United States could offer help, then compassion could attack autocratic narratives better than pressure. In Indonesia during the battle for hearts and minds against radical Islamists, radical groups claimed that America was waging a war on Islam rather than just on terror. However, when the Indonesian TV channels revealed, during the East Asian tsunami crisis of 2004, how the U.S. Navy brought drinking water to the devote Muslims of Indonesia’s Aceh province, such narrative was difficult to sustain. According to Pew Research institute poll, in just months after the crisis the share of Indonesian Muslims supporting Osama bin Laden dropped from 59% to 36%.
The coronavirus crisis could also be an opportunity for fighting the North Korean threat by means of compassion. Sustaining a narrative of an external threat is absolutely necessary for Kim Jong-un to justify a policy that diverts economic resources from poverty alleviation to the nuclear weapons program. While North Koreans may see U.S. sanctions as inhumane and illegal—i.e. as proofs of an external threat—compassion could destroy the autocratic threat narrative.
Timo Kivimäki is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Bath.