The main objectives of North Korea’s policy toward the United States have not changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Pyongyang’s longer-term goals are getting U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula and severing the U.S.-South Korean alliance. More immediate goals are sanctions relief, curtailing U.S. military exercises on the Peninsula, and resetting the relationship so that Washington treats the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) more respectfully because it is a nuclear weapons state. The most notable new development is that the outbreak of the coronavirus has pushed North Korea’s economic problems to a crisis level, even as Kim Jong-un continues to consolidate his nuclear deterrent by refining his delivery systems.
Sanctions were already seriously harming North Korea’s economy, harm that is only partially offset by the DPRK’s efforts to evade sanctions or get revenue from illicit activities such as cyber theft. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the economic problem. North Korean media frequently report stringent efforts to avoid infections, despite the government claiming no North Koreans have contracted the coronavirus. Trade with largest economic partner China has mostly stopped since Pyongyang closed the border in 2020 over coronavirus fears. Pyongyang also cited the pandemic as the reason for North Korea deciding not to participate in the Olympic Games planned for later this year. Many foreign diplomats and humanitarian aid workers have exited the country en masse, and foreign remittances into the DPRK are reduced.
Relief is not imminent. North Korea will receive 1.7 million doses of vaccine from the COVAX program, but not until May. The DPRK population is over 25 million.
Outside observers describe a food crisis. Kim himself seemed to confirm this assessment in early April, when he called on officials to undertake “another, more arduous Long March,” comparing the DPRK’s current situation to a famine in the 1990s that may have killed two or three million North Koreans.
The situation would seem to call for another North Korean charm offensive. In 2018, Kim used a professed willingness to denuclearize to lure Trump into the Singapore and Hanoi summit meetings. More recently, however, Pyongyang seems insistent on changing the conversation to arms control—i.e., removal of U.S. economic sanctions in exchange for agreed limits on, rather than removal of, the DPRK’s nuclear and missile capabilities. It would not be surprising to see the DPRK return to its familiar practice of dual-use missile or nuclear bomb testing, which the regime needs for weapons development research but which also support a campaign to pressure the United States into negotiations.
President Biden’s reaction to DPRK missile test launches in March suggests Kim will not easily intimidate Washington into negotiations. Even with the prospects of help from China lower than ever, nuclear bomb and long-range missile tests by the DPRK are not as consequential now that North Korea’s nuclear missile capability is widely accepted. Biden’s government will probably not enter into serious talks with Pyongyang absent a recommitment to denuclearize, and will be cautious not to make concessions that would attract criticism of Joe Biden as weak against adversaries. Given many other higher priority domestic and foreign policy issues, it is not clear that Biden needs a perceived success in U.S. policy toward North Korea. Therefore, he may calculate that maintaining a stagnant status quo, in which deterrence holds and the United States maintains its economic sanctions indefinitely to punish North Korea for its failure to denuclearize, is good enough.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He follows Asia-Pacific strategic issues.