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North Korea: A Looming Stability Crisis Coming Soon?

KCNA Hwasong-16 Image
KCNA screenshot of Hwasong-16 ICBM.

The following is an interview I did with the Korea Herald a few days back that gets into some of the challenges North Korea faces when it comes to possible coronavirus lockdowns.

I do worry a little about regime stability these days as Pyongyang is having to take on so many different challenges at once with so few resources. Fearing the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons is one thing, but what happens to those weapons in a crisis where the state breakdown is a nightmare.

1) What’s the aftershock we could expect from this complete lockdown? Perhaps, a more starving and thus demoralizing population that would potentially change how leader Kim responds to the pandemic? What do you see most likely happening soon if NK sticks to this total isolation?

North Korea will suffer the same fate as many nations around the world that are in much better economic shape—a self-inflicted deep economic depression.

However, the DPRK is not France, Italy or the U.S., and has no resources to mitigate the economic and societal impacts of such a lockdown. Indeed, North Korea will now suffer greatly.

With Pyongyang already being hammered by damaging economic sanctions that had the economy hurting already, food security that has persisted for years if not decades, and three typhoons landing just months ago we must now ask ourselves how much can the Kim regime take? At what point do we start to wonder about the overall health and vitality of the Kim government?

While I am not predicting the collapse of North Korea, we must admit, Kim Jong Un is now facing the greatest threat to the Kim family regime since the collapse of Soviet aid in the 1990s.

2) Would leader Kim be able to hold onto this path of total isolation, described as “irrational” by Seoul’s spy agency, when he expects a January congress where he is set to reveal a grand economic initiative?

In the short term, Kim needs to try and seek as much help from China and to some extent Russia as possible. That means medical aid in terms of COVID-19 PPE, medications that can treat the virus, and any shoring up of the North Korean medical system it can get its hands on.

Pyongyang must work with Beijing now to get as early access as they will allow to COVID-19 vaccine candidates so the entire North Korean population can be vaccinated—the only way to ensure the country can be protected entirely.

As China is the world’s largest producer of vaccines—essentially, a vaccine producing superpower, creating as many as 5 billion doses of different vaccines per year—they are surely able to help the Kim regime with this.

3) Do you see North Korea resorting to missile launches or firing drills soon, as a way to rally its people and keep their mind off the pandemic frustration? Could North Korea even pull this off considering Kim just ordered a nationwide lockdown?

I can’t see any logical reason why Kim would even think about a missile, nuclear, or any sort of provocation in the short to medium term.

The Kim regime is clearly suffering greatly due to COVID-19. What little would be gained by such a test knowing that the incoming Biden Administration would most likely push for more international sanctions, only making the situation in North Korea worse? I think we are likely to see a very quiet few weeks from the Kim regime leading up to the eight party congress. Kim, to be frank, has no other choice now.

This is why both Seoul and Washington in the months ahead must continue to offer to assist North Korea on COVID-19 in any way it would accept. This could build some much-needed trust, and show that Seoul and Washington are not trying to take advantage of the situation geopolitically, but do truly want a new relationship with Pyongyang.

Harry Kazianis
Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as a Senior Director at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C., a Washington D.C.-based think tank founded by President Richard Nixon in 1994. Kazianis in the past served as Editor-In-Chief of the Diplomat and as a national security-focused fellow at CSIS, the Potomac Foundation, and the University of Nottingham (UK). His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum.

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