North Korea is struggling with a massive corona outbreak. The country is completely at the mercy of the virus: there is no medical and no testing infrastructure. Does Kim Jong Un now have to take a step that he has always avoided so far?
North Korea is a reliable partner of China. The Stone Age regime in Pyongyang is the inspiration for Xi Jinping’s dream of a completely isolated society. North Korea is by far not as well equipped technologically for this as the neighboring People’s Republic.
But both rulers have in common that they are striving for self-sufficiency, economic and political independence from the rest of the world for their countries. The corona pandemic has shown that this anti-world course is not viable for China and North Korea alike.
For weeks, the People’s Republic has been fighting an outbreak of the omicron variant. Beijing is resorting to draconian measures, locking millions of people in their cramped apartments. But these measures cannot take effect as long as the lockdowns are not underlined with effective vaccination campaigns.
But the vaccines made in China do not adequately protect against omicron. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the leadership in Beijing has relied on keeping people in China as a solution. Passports are only issued for exceptional purposes. Locking up, sealing off is and remains the motto.
The same is true in North Korea: the borders there have been closed. But now Omicron has also broken out of the Stone Age dictatorship. There are said to be around two million cases of “fever”, as the power clique calls the dangerous disease. North Korea is completely at the mercy of the virus: there is no medical and no testing infrastructure.
In the country, millions of people do not even have access to drinking water and are malnourished. Therein lies a big and also decisive difference to the People’s Republic. Xi Jinping has pledged support to his tyrannical little neighbor Kim Jong Un, who has appealed to Beijing for help. But the Chinese vaccines will not suddenly work better in North Korea as if by a miracle.
Both China and North Korea have historically refused to accept foreign vaccines. Such a global crisis is not the moment to gamble with the human lives entrusted to a political leader.
The United States of America, which, like the rest of the free world, rejects the terror regime in Pyongyang, which wants to become a nuclear power, have put on record that the enemy, of course, also distributed vaccines from the USA to the battered population via global distribution mechanisms may receive. But Pyongyang has not retrieved the vaccine doses provided by COCAX.
In addition to China, Russia is also said to be helping North Korea with vaccines. But even the Russian vaccine is not sufficiently effective against the omicron variant. With the pandemic so out of control, observers believe Pyongyang will move and accept help from the free world. It’s not just about vaccines that aren’t bringing any relief to the current outbreak, but also drugs that are already being used successfully against Covid.
The first address here would be democratic South Korea. Newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol has already offered help, but days later Pyongyang has yet to send a response to Seoul. Rather, leader Kim Jong Un attracted negative attention with another missile test.
Instead of putting scarce financial resources into the population’s survival, the dictatorship uses it for costly provocations in the free world, above all in the helpful South Korea. The People’s Republic likes this, because it takes attention away from the doings of Xi Jinping, which Beijing’s logic is that the world will ultimately need to rein in Kim.
US President Biden is visiting the partner in Seoul this Saturday to let South Korea and the rest of the Indo-Pacific alike know that the United States stands firmly with its allies. The war that Russia has launched against Ukraine, with all the devastating implications for world grain and energy supplies, could fuel suspicions that the US might not be paying attention to what China and North Korea are doing right now.
Biden’s visit aims to show the opposite. At the same time, contingency plans had to be made if Pyongyang launched missiles during the Biden visit. The current disaster that the People’s Republic and North Korea are experiencing in equal measure has the power to endanger the internal stability of the dictatorships.
The hard line of Xi and Kim will continue to claim many lives. This shows the free world once again that cooperation and empathy are the best recipes for mastering global crises together and successfully. Because North Korea also shows that the pandemic is far from over.
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Where many people have not yet been vaccinated, the coronavirus finds breeding ground to hatch new variants. Without immediate help, the situation in the north of the Korean peninsula will get completely out of hand, which would also pose a real threat to the Chinese side of the border region.
Kim has no choice, as long as he cares the least bit about the population, but to turn away from China and Russia in the fight against Covid and to turn to the free world with its effective vaccines and medicines.
Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.