History Shows North Korea Will Respond to the Coronavirus by Lashing Out

April 1, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaCOVID-19CoronavirusAmericaKim Jong-unDonald Trump

History Shows North Korea Will Respond to the Coronavirus by Lashing Out

WIll the pattern repeat?

Most observers agree that, despite North Korea’s claim to have avoided the COVID-19 spread, the coronavirus, especially in conjunction with the damaging effects of economic sanctions, has actually had significant consequences for life inside the nation. Much less agreement, however, exists about the impact these consequences might have on DPRK behavior and the country’s relationship with the United States. Some see these emerging challenges as a potential opportunity for the Trump administration to re-engage from a stronger position, assuming that North Korea’s instability will force the regime to adopt a more accommodating position in order to gain the help it will need. History, however, suggests that the opposite is true. Instead, the Kim family has traditionally shown that, during times of serious internal strife, it is much more likely to embrace policies of attack than of accommodation. 

The twin shocks of economic sanctions and the coronavirus have clearly left a mark inside the DPRK, particularly after the disease curtailed border crossings and air travel between the North and China. The DPRK’s economy appears to be suffering dramatically, with widespread stories of inflation and the hoarding of critical goods. Many schools have been closed, social gatherings have been limited, and much tourism is suspended. Moreover, businesses have been restricted and people suspected of exposure have been quarantined. The North’s backwards health care system is also unlikely to be able to handle even a minor outbreak, a reality that is doubtless at the heart of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent decision to order the construction of a new “modern general hospital” intended to “protect the precious health and safety of our people.” 

Many think that this internal weakness might convince the North to seek some accommodation with the United States and perhaps even launch a larger peace offensive. Accordingly, some have praised Trump’s recent letter offering assistance to the DPRK as an important first step in seizing this opportunity, and have called for follow-up pledges of aid in the near future. Such sentiments seem to make sense on the surface, since any nation that needs outside assistance during unstable times seems unlikely to risk alienating those who might provide it. And yet, history shows that North Korea rarely meets such expectations.

Consider the late 1960s. Numerous factors during this period, including a serious economic decline, growing hostility (and even some small skirmishes) with China, and some minor domestic unrest that led to a number of purges, left Kim Il-sung facing the most serious internal problems since his consolidation of power in late 1956. His rule certainly was not in danger, but a few somewhat troubling signs had clearly emerged. The East German Ambassador in Pyongyang wrote about a “tightened conflict, an oppositional movement in the party,” and his counterpart from Czechoslovakia attributed DPRK policies to Kim’s desire “to distract people from pressing economic problems and to drown internal difficulties.” Yet, the North’s response to these internal problems was not to restrain its external provocation but to increase it in the hopes of fomenting a crisis that the Kim family could use to distract the population and justify its domestic shortcomings. 

The Korean Peninsula suddenly exploded in violence. Military incidents, almost all launched by the North, grew from 42 in 1965 to 286 in just the first half of 1967. “Never,” wrote the East German Ambassador to North Korea as 1967 drew to a close, “since the end of the Korean War, have there been so many and such severe incidents at the armistice line as in 1967.” In January 1968, the North launched an assassination attempt against South Korean President Park Chung-hee that narrowly missed, sparking a massive manhunt and firefights across the South. Days later, it attacked a U.S. spy ship operating off its coast, leaving one American dead and 82 others in North Korean prison camps for almost a year; the following year it shot down an American spy plane, killing all 31 men on board. Many, including some of Kim’s communist allies, lamented the risky behavior, but the North was determined to counter its domestic weakness with a manufactured crisis that could rally the people and justify domestic repression. “The spreading military psychosis,” wrote Czech officials in Pyongyang in February, “had other functions, like distracting people from the existing economic difficulties, justifying stagnation of the standard of living, demanding the strictest discipline and obedience, and preventing any criticism.”

Or consider the late 1990s. A combination of fierce drought, horrific rains, poor economic planning, and the demise of Soviet support had again reduced the North’s economy to shambles. Conditions were horrific, with children living on 35 percent of the United Nations’ recommended caloric intake and families trying to survive on diets of weeds, roots, and bark. The death toll probably reached into the millions. Complicating the situation was the 1994 death of Kim Il-sung and the emergence of his son, Kim Jong-il, to replace him. The younger Kim seemed to lack his father’s image and persona; the people “don’t blame Kim Il Sung, but they do blame Kim Jong Il,” one defector explained. “The moment Kim Jong Il came into power the problems started, they think.” After the North made an official request in 1995, the international community began providing massive amounts of food aid, which inspired some to suggest that the crisis might force Pyongyang into a diplomatic engagement. “Things have a way of confounding us on the Korean Peninsula,” noted former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea James Laney, “but really the North’s need––I want to say their desperate situation––may make it necessary for them to face a degree of reality that they’ve been unwilling to up until now.” 

Instead, the DPRK again chose to bite the hands that fed them. In 1995, the North seized a South Korean relief ship that was bringing assistance, and threatened to annul the Korean War armistice (despite the fact that the South had recently provided them with 70,000 tons of rice). In September 1996, a team of DPRK commandos attempted to infiltrate the South after their submarine ran aground, setting off a manhunt that left twenty-four North Koreans and fourteen South Koreans dead. A very unrepentant DPRK government condemned the ROK’s response as “barbarousness and beastliness,” and warned in a letter to the United Nations that “if the enemies do not return our small submarine, survivors, and the dead unconditionally, while continuing to make ill use of the incident for the sinister political purpose, we will be forced to take strong countermeasures.” In 1998, the North launched a multi-stage Taepodong missile across Japan that quickly led the Tokyo government to abandon earlier promises of significant financial and food assistance. Others followed suit; U.S. aid, which had peaked in 1999 at almost $300 million, plummeted to $138 million in 2000, and a few years later, President Bush famously denounced the Kim regime as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Much still remains shrouded about North Korean motivation during this period but one thing was clear: the Kim family had once again defied conventional wisdom and chosen conflict over cooperation during a time of significant internal turmoil. 

The COVID-19 crisis, as Donald Trump constantly reminds us, is an unprecedented situation. Nevertheless, the economic and political instability it seems likely to generate inside North Korea is not. Past crises thus offer a gloomy reminder for those who see in the virus the possibility of improved relations. The elites in Pyongyang have always demonstrated their commitment to one objective above all else: to remain in power. In difficult times, that objective often manifests through increased pugnacity. As conditions deteriorate inside the DPRK, its leaders will face a choice that they have faced before: to welcome the outside world in ways that might undercut a half-century of propaganda about the threat of the American-led system, or to strike out with provocative behavior that can reinforce that threatening message for their domestic audience and thus perpetuate their dictatorship. History suggests that they will choose the latter. 

Mitchell Lerner is Professor of History and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at The Ohio State University. He tweets at @MitchellLerner.

Image: Reuters