The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion North Korea sees a virus explosion. Its missiles won’t help.

An employee disinfects the Kyonghung Foodstuff General Store in Pyongyang, North Korea, in November. (Jon Chol Jin/AP)
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North Korea’s launch of three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday marked its 16th weapons test this year. But far more significant was a big explosion inside the country: the announcement of a coronavirus outbreak, with 525,400 people symptomatic and 27 dead. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, declared an emergency lockdown. The country is facing an even deeper humanitarian crisis than before — and missiles won’t help.

For two years, Mr. Kim strove to keep the pandemic at bay by physical means. He tightened border controls, essentially putting the whole nation in a quarantine. Inbound travel was all but prohibited, borders were guarded with a shoot-on-sight policy, and most trade with China was suspended. Until this week, North Korea insisted that it had zero infections. The virus might have been snaking through the provinces for weeks or months, but once it reached Pyongyang, it could no longer be ignored or concealed. Now, the state media have declared a “most serious national emergency.” As well they should. North Korea’s population is highly vulnerable.

First, as Chad O’Carroll pointed out in NK News, North Korea’s neighbors, China, Russia and South Korea, have been struggling with the highly contagious omicron variant. China’s Jilin province, one of the hardest-hit regions, borders North Korea. Second, North Korea has no vaccine strategy and no vaccines. It has turned down offers from the international distribution effort known as Covax, and has no domestic shot. Thus, its population of about 26 million is facing an outbreak that could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths. When omicron hit Hong Kong, it decimated elder-care homes, suggesting what could happen in North Korea. China had a good diagnostic test capability, but North Korea is lacking there, too, and thus can’t easily track the spread. One tool that the police state does have is to restrict movement. It has imposed tight limits on travel inside the country. But China’s experience shows that such draconian measures can lose their effectiveness over time, as the virus escapes and transmits anyway. Meanwhile, North Korea faces an equally serious food crisis. Mr. Kim put food shortages at the center of his remarks in January, and it does not appear to be easing.

Mr. Kim’s choices are tough. He can roll back the quarantine and lockdown, seeking vaccines, medicines and food, but that would be an embarrassing reversal. If he sticks to closure, the population could face a period of death and misery not unlike the famine of the 1990s. And if he keeps shooting off missiles — a nuclear-weapons test site is being refurbished, too — his isolation will only grow deeper.

For the West, North Korea’s predicament might offer a small opening. Since the failed Hanoi summit in 2019, efforts to re-engage North Korea have been frozen. Why not offer the highly effective mRNA vaccines — or, for that matter, any vaccines and medicines — without conditions related to Mr. Kim’s weapons programs? His belligerency and weapons programs make it difficult. But the worse option is doing nothing to stop a tragedy.