North Korean authorities have sealed their borders and imposed strict quarantine measures, declaring coronavirus prevention measures a matter of “national survival.”
On the southern side of the peninsula, the United States and South Korea have indefinitely postponed joint military drills because of a surge in coronavirus cases, including on military bases.
Authorities in both Koreas are scrambling to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus, shifting attention from North Korea nuclear negotiations, which were stalled.
Depending on how long the outbreak lasts, it could mean that nuclear talks will remain held up throughout U.S. President Donald Trump’s first term.
“I think [the North Koreans] are absorbed by this health scare and the management of it,” a Seoul-based European diplomat told VOA. “Trickier and more long-term, complicated issues are by definition secondary right now,” the diplomat added.
Talks ‘completely dormant’
Prospects for the nuclear talks were already grim. North Korean officials have for months shunned the negotiations, accusing the United States of not offering enough in exchange for steps to begin dismantling its nuclear program.
In early January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he no longer felt bound by his moratorium on long-range missile or nuclear tests and vowed to unveil a “new strategic weapon.” Since the outbreak, though, North Korean officials have refrained from major provocative statements.
The North Korean nuclear talks have now gone completely dormant, according to a senior South Korean diplomat. “Their priorities are now elsewhere,” he said.
“It’s compounded by the fact that [North Korean diplomats] can’t travel,” added the European diplomat.
Both diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
Some say the coronavirus-imposed freeze may not be a bad thing for the talks.
North Korea has not yet responded to the Thursday postponement of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. Pyongyang has long viewed the drills as unacceptable and often conducts weapons tests and other provocations in response.
The absence of drills, combined with North Korea’s all-out efforts to keep out the coronavirus, could mean that military tensions will not escalate in the first part of the year, as many had expected, according to some analysts.
“That can give us some time. Then the U.S. and South Korea can come up with some kind of workable formula to persuade North Korea to come back to dialogue,” said Moon Chung-in, a scholar and special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon, the presidential adviser, who spoke to VOA in his personal capacity, pointed to the possibility of the United States providing direct or indirect coronavirus-related aid to North Korea, which is in dire need of medical supplies.
The U.S. State Department earlier this month said it is “deeply concerned” North Koreans are susceptible to the virus and that it supports the efforts of international aid organizations that are trying to deliver emergency assistance to North Korea.
Others are less optimistic that the coronavirus worries will lead to a breakthrough in talks.
“The longer there’s a period without tensions, the better. But absent any other impetus to try again, I don’t think this will be enough. North Korea likely won’t come back to talks in a weakened state,” said Andray Abrahamian, who focuses on North Korea as an adjunct senior fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum.
“But if this absorbs them for the next few months, it’s a nice excuse to just wait a few more and see who wins the next [U.S.] election before making a move,” he added.
Upcoming elections in both the United States and South Korea could influence the nuclear talks.
In South Korea, President Moon faces a crucial legislative election in April that could help determine the direction of the second half of his five-year term. Moon has prioritized engagement with North Korea, even as Pyongyang abandoned talks, resumed missile tests, and hurled a flurry of insults toward Seoul.
The election could serve as a de facto referendum on Moon’s approach to North Korea, as well as his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has angered many of his conservative critics.
In the United States, Trump’s reelection is far from certain, and some of his Democratic challengers have hinted they may roll back portions of Trump’s personal outreach to Kim.
North Korea still interested?
When the coronavirus recedes, where will things stand with the talks?
If Trump is reelected, some believe that talks could resume relatively quickly, citing North Korea’s less-aggressive stance toward the U.S. in recent months.
“From the North Korean perspective, it’s likely that they would be interested in resuming talks, because then they have another four years with someone they already know, and there is no period where you have to get to know each other,” the European diplomat said.
“If they were to do a major provocation — a space launch or an ICBM — what would they have to gain from that right now?” he added.
US waits for first move
The U.S.-North Korea talks broke down in early October following a brief round of working-level discussions in Stockholm.
The U.S. has since given new titles to some of the negotiators involved in the North Korea talks. Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, was promoted to deputy secretary of state in December. Earlier this month, the White House announced it intends to nominate Alex Wong, the deputy special envoy, to an ambassador-level post at the United Nations.
At an event Wednesday in Washington, Wong said it was up to North Korea to re-enter negotiations.
“When they’re ready to set in motion the necessary talks, when they’re ready to seize the opportunities that we have before us, our team will be ready as well,” he said.