Could the Coronavirus Help Restart Peace Talks with North Korea?

With global coronavirus fears hitting fever pitch, news of another seismic threat ⁠— this one wholly man-made ⁠— received little attention last week. On Monday March 2, two short-range ballistic missiles arced high over the Korean Peninsula, flew 149 miles, then splashed down into the sea. 

North Korea is Still a Threat

A stark reminder of North Korea’s nuclear intentions, it was the pariah state’s first weapons test of 2020. And yet, just days later, noises from America were conciliatory. The United States is “ready and willing” to resume denuclearisation talks, State Department official Christopher Ford said on Thursday. Later that day, South Korea and leading European nations at the UN joined the call for renewed diplomacy.

For a full year now, the negotiating table has been empty. Three meetings between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un broke decades of deafening silence between the two nations. However, no meaningful breakthrough was achieved.   

Since then, the autocratic leader has adopted a characteristically aggressive stance, expanding his missile capability in response to “gangster-like” US pressure. Over the past nine months, the North has conducted an estimated 14 ballistics tests.

Coronavirus: the X Factor in North Korea Negotiations

But outwith the world of US and North Korea tensions, there have been developments that could have an impact; namely the coronavirus. The contagion’s onset led America and South Korea to cancel their yearly regional military drills, which invariably see retaliatory posturing by the North. Though Kim did fire a missile, it was a less provocative measure than he’s taken in the past ⁠— a response, perhaps, to the allies’ postponement of their exercises.    

The outbreak has also forced Korea’s warring neighbors to engage on a humanitarian level. In an unprecedented move, the North has permitted the entry of Red Cross personnel and resources to help fight the virus’s spread. Though a modest gesture, it’s an indication that dialogue is ongoing and, it seems, reaching common ground.     

For real progress to be made, however, many feel that Trump’s approach must be rethought. Washington has adopted a sharp economic edge in its dealing with Korea, refusing to lift a single financial sanction on the impoverished North, and demanding that the South cover the costs of hosting US troops on the peninsula. Critics worry that rather than expedite a solution to the fragile situation, Trump’s financial focus is simply allowing Kim time to expand his arsenal.   

Regardless, there seems little likelihood of a change in tact prior to November’s presidential election. Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra served him well in 2016, as did his promise to untangle the US from volatile foreign conflicts. Besides, American voters seem to be worrying less and less about North Korea: 13% of those polled recently said that the reclusive state presents the world’s “greatest threat”, down from 59% in 2017. 

Does Kim Jong-un Want War With America?

Indeed, most experts agree that Kim does not want a war with America. Facing off with the world’s predominant military power, he could never come out on top. But he feels his only way of winning concessions is by building a nuclear arsenal – one that could end thousands of American lives with a single strike. 

Despite the man’s totalitarian instincts, a compromise must be sought. Loosening the noose of economic sanctions could be the goodwill gesture that sparks real progress, experts believe. But with Russia and China advocating that approach, there seems to be no chance of Trump ⁠— famously recalcitrant as he is ⁠— falling into line.    

But again, the coronavirus might be the unforeseen factor that could elicit genuine change. Economically stunted, North Korea is dependent on Chinese trade for survival. Should the contagion sever that commercial link, Kim’s back would be well and truly against the wall. At that stage, a return to the negotiating table might be his best option.