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What the United States Can Do to Help North Korea with the Coronavirus

By Troy Stangarone

In response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, North Korea has closed its border to tourists and commerce with China and Russia to prevent the spread of the disease in North Korea. But helping North Korea address the crisis would not only be the right thing to do, it could also serve as an entryway for the United States build trust needed for future talks on other issues.

Officially, North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine has worked. It has not reported any cases of infection to the World Health Organization.  However, North Korea is an opaque society and there have been indications that the disease has spread to North Korea. Five North Koreans reportedly died in the area of Sinuiju from symptoms similar to the coronavirus, while there are reports that a North Korean in Pyongyang may have contracted the virus as well.

While North Korea has made progress in some areas since its healthcare system went into decline in the 1990s, it still lacks the tools that other countries have to deal with contagious viruses such as the coronavirus. At this critical moment, North Korea likely needs access to facial masks and sanitizers to prevent the virus from spreading. For those who have contracted the virus, North Korean doctors would need equipment and supplies such as ventilators, medication to stabilize blood pressure, and intravenous fluids to treat the virus.

It is unclear in recent years if North Korea has put the proper resources into building up its healthcare infrastructure. Moreover, access to these supplies has been made more complicated in recent years as aid organizations have faced additional challenges in working in North Korea from international sanctions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does recommend facial masks for travelers, but it notes that proper sanitation is also an important part of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.  While North Korea has increased domestic production of facial masks to try and meet demand, it is unclear if it is producing versions of facial masks that most effective and it would likely also need help in ensuring proper sanitation products are available.

This is where the United States could provide assistance to North Korea. Sanctions were never intended to inhibit the shipment of non-dual use medical supplies and it will be much more difficult to contain the virus if it there were to be a serious outbreak in North Korea.

The United States could offer to provide North Korea with additional supplies of hand sanitizer and facial masks to help prevent the spread of the disease. Or, if that were objectionable to North Korea, the United States could work help facilitate their provision from NGOs willing to provide North Korea assistance.

In addition to providing supplies, the United States could offer to have the CDC consult with North Korean doctors via phone or programs such as Skype. Should there be a wider outbreak, then the CDC could also coordinate other needed supplies that North Korea may need to treat the infected.

While the United States should not offer this assistance with the hope of it inducing North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear weapons programs, it could help in improving the relationship in the long-term. Building mutual trust requires taking steps that demonstrate that one party in a dispute is willing to help the other rather than just continue a cold stalemate.

However, if the United States did reach out to offer North Korea help, it should be done through discreet channels to allow North Korea greater latitude to accept the aid. Public pronouncements might be misperceived in North Korea as U.S. efforts to suggest it cannot contain the spread of the coronavirus on its own. Discrete cooperation, instead, is likely better for both countries.


Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director and Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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