South Korea Minimized the Damage from Covid-19. North Korea Maximized It.

South Korea and North Korea have ethnically identical populations with a shared history and culture dating back thousands of years. But they are vastly divergent in their political systems—and hence, also, in their approach to the novel coronavirus. South Korea has been a world leader in combatting the pandemic while keeping its economy running. By contrast, North Korea has had to resort to draconian, brute-force methods to keep the contagion at bay. While those methods may be successful in limiting infections, they have done serious damage to an already anemic economy.

South Korea was able to prevent a large outbreak without closing its borders, without a full lockdown, and without paralyzing its economy. South Korea had a sophisticated pandemic-fighting plan developed after past experiences with SARS and MERS that employed rapid testing, stringent contact tracing, isolation of patients, and consistent government-driven communication to ensure widespread cooperation. South Korea has been especially adept at using technological tools, including camera footage, smartphones, location data, and credit card records to track down and limit infection clusters. The government has also proclaimed a “zero-tolerance” policy and “maximum penalties” for people violating laws created to control the virus—anything from not wearing a mask to breaking quarantine. The public has been overwhelmingly cooperative; there are no anti-mask protests in South Korea.

The world has taken notice of South Korea’s success, which has been dubbed “K-Quarantine,” after “K-pop.” South Korea’s anti-virus czar, Dr. Jung Eun-kyeong, the commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, was included on the list of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020—and for good reason. The Wall Street Journal writes:

South Korea halted virus transmission better than any other wealthy country during the pandemic’s early months. It was about twice as effective as the U.S. and U.K. at preventing infected individuals from spreading the disease to others, according to a recent report from a United Nations-affiliated research network. South Korea’s economy is expected to decline by just 0.8% this year, the best among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s [OECD] forecasts for member nations.

South Korea did have a second wave of infections in mid-August. Its rate of new infections, which fell from as many as 900 a day in late February to fewer than 10 a day in late April, rose back up to triple digits. The virus mainly spread in churches and in large anti-government rallies. But the Moon administration responded promptly and aggressively, again tightening restrictions, banning church gatherings and large outdoor protests, and shutting down nightclubs and bars. As a result, despite a surge in new cases over the second wave, South Korea still has only 20,000 confirmed cases and a little more than 300 deaths overall, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its total of deaths per million is still just 8—nearly 80 times lower than the United States, with 629 deaths per million.

The second wave of infections has renewed a sense of urgency for producing a vaccine. The Moon administration has been simultaneously promoting local companies' work while collaborating internationally. Several South Korean companies are currently developing Covid-19 vaccines, all of which are already in clinical trials, or are on pace to start them before the end of the year. South Korea’s SK Bioscience, meanwhile, has agreed to manufacture vaccines jointly developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford. The Moon administration has also publicly expressed interest in the COVAX Initiative, led by the World Health Organization, to quickly distribute a safe vaccine when it becomes available. In a recent video message to the UN General Assembly, President Moon called for a regional infectious disease control and public health initiative involving China, Japan, Mongolia, and North Korea to tackle the pandemic. Most likely, Moon included North Korea as part of Seoul’s efforts to improve inter-Korea relations and bring the North out of its isolation.

The kind of international cooperation that South Korea encourages would, of course, be unthinkable in the hermit kingdom to the north. North Korea is currently facing one of its worst economic downturns since the famine of the mid-1990s, and a big part of the reason why is the drastic measures the regime undertook to prevent Covid-19. If the Kim Jong Un regime is to be believed, North Korea, which shares a porous 870-mile border with China, is one of the very few countries in the world—along with some isolated islands in the Pacific—with no cases of Covid-19. (North Korea announced one “suspected” case of Covid-19 on July 26 when a re-defector fled South Korea back to North Korea but has not said whether he had a confirmed case of Covid-19.)

North Korea’s claim is no doubt a considerable exaggeration, but while there are likely more cases of Covid-19 than Kim admits, there probably is not a massive outbreak in the country of the kind that has occurred in the United States, India, Brazil, and Russia. That would be hard to keep secret. Arguably, the North had no choice but to enforce such strict measures, given its lack of medical capacity. There are power outages and no running water in many of its hospitals; what little medical equipment exists goes to facilities in Pyongyang, leaving rural areas bereft. North Korea ranked 193rd out of 195 countries in John Hopkins University’s 2019 Global Health Security Index. Only two countries fared worse than North Korea—Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. In the category of rapid response to and mitigation of the spread of an epidemic, North Korea came dead last, after Somalia and Eritrea. Simply put, North Korea needed to stop Covid-19 from spreading in any way it could because it could not contain its spread once it occurred.

But the North has paid a heavy price to keep the pandemic at bay. Actions the regime took to cordon off the country in late January have exacerbated the North’s already reeling economy. These measures further cut foreign currency inflows and reduced trade, both legal and illegal, with China, which accounts for 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Even pre-coronavirus, the regime had been feeling the weight of nearly a dozen UN Security Council sanctions resolutions, as well as unilateral U.S. sanctions. A prominent economics professor at Seoul National University, Kim Byung-yeon, said last December, before the pandemic, that the Kim regime was expected to lose a minimum of $1 billion per year in foreign reserves. He predicted that the regime’s coffers will be empty in a few years. In March, shortly after the regime closed down the border, North Korea’s exports to China were down 96 percent from a year ago, according to Chinese customs data.

To prevent a Covid-19 outbreak, the regime shut down its tourism industry; its newly opened ski resorts and spas are now sitting idle. Unofficial private market activity also came to a halt as the regime clamped down on the smugglers who keep the private markets functioning. North Korea's measures to stop the pandemic did more damage to its economy than sanctions ever could.

Making matters worse in recent months have been heavy rains, flooding, and several major typhoons back to back, which displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed large areas of farmland. Pyongyang’s Covid-19 prevention measures, meanwhile, make it difficult to bring in outside aid. Many UN and nongovernmental organization staff members were forced to leave the country. North Korea is largely on its own to handle the worst disaster since the 1990s famine.       

This grim situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon. The North has announced that it won’t open its borders again until a vaccine is developed, which means a near-complete economic self-embargo will continue until at least next year. Bringing relief supplies into the country is difficult, not just because of the closed borders, but also because of the extensive UN sanctions. Some 43 percent of the population, or 11 million people, are already malnourished, according to a UN report, making them vulnerable to infectious diseases. Dreams that Kim Jong-un could revive the North Korea economy with market-oriented reforms now seem like distant fantasies far removed from the grim reality of the moment.

The coronavirus has only increased the already vast gap between South and North Korea. The South is poised to stay where it is economically despite the pandemic, while the North will be even more impoverished than before the pandemic. Not only has South Korea’s economy suffered the smallest hit in the OECD this year, but it is also making use of this crisis to make major investments in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and medical devices that are likely to pay off down the road. Already, the combined market cap of South Korea’s three biggest health care stocks—Samsung Biologics, Celltrion Inc., and Celltrion Healthcare—has surged to $100 billion since the start of the spread of the coronavirus. That is more than five times the entire GDP of North Korea (estimated at only $18 billion).

This growing disparity makes it even more difficult to imagine that the North and South will ever “converge,” leading to peaceful reunification, as many progressives in South Korea hope will happen. But the current crisis could actually improve the odds of some kind of nuclear deal in the short run. Recall that the one major deal the United States ever concluded with North Korea—the 1994 Agreed Framework—came only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading to a reduction of both Russian and Chinese subsidies to the state. The consequences of this aid drawdown were so severe that a massive famine began in 1994, which killed 2 to 3 million people. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was probably motivated to reach a deal with the United States to receive aid from the United States and South Korea to offset the loss of aid from China and Russia. Of course, the Dear Leader was not willing to actually give up his nuclear program, but he was willing to at least ratchet it back. The deal paid off from his perspective: donors delivered food aid worth more than $2 billion between 1996 and 2005, with the bulk of that coming from the United States.

Might the Dear Leader’s son be similarly inclined today under the pressure of the coronavirus and sanctions? Again, there is little chance that North Korea will actually give up its nuclear program, which the Kim family sees as necessary for regime survival. But there is a chance it might agree to some kind of deal to freeze its arsenal or destroy some facilities in return for an easing of sanctions that could help it cope with the coronavirus and natural disasters. This is, in essence, the deal that Kim offered President Trump at the Hanoi summit in 2019: he offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, an aging facility at the heart of the nuclear program, in return for an end to most of the sanctions enacted since 2016 that are most harmful to North Korea’s economy. Trump turned down the Hanoi offer as inadequate. It is possible that in a second Trump term—or in a Biden administration—the United States might accept such a deal to prevent North Korea from continuing to expand its WMD arsenal, raising fears of proliferation. This is not necessarily likely, but it is possible—and it is important for the U.S. government to think through today what its position should be in case Kim offers a deal at some point in the future. While a disaster from the standpoint of the economy and public health, Covid-19 could actually spur diplomatic progress with North Korea—if not a breakthrough deal that would actually result in denuclearization.

Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Sue Mi Terry