The Biden administration is open to sharing coronavirus vaccines and other humanitarian assistance to help North Korea combat the deadly pandemic, according to two sources familiar with internal discussions.
Administration officials believe that the North Koreans won’t be ready to engage with the US until the threat from the pandemic has passed, which is one reason why sharing vaccines could grease the wheels for initial diplomatic engagement, current and former officials said.
But some experts and other officials are skeptical that any humanitarian outreach would draw North Korea to the table given the country’s insistence on sanctions relief.
“Vaccine diplomacy is an easy effort to break this impasse because the Biden administration cannot do much about sanctions lifting so they have to look at what incentives to give to North Korea,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the CIA and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It depends on how desperate North Korea is.”
The administration is currently reviewing its entire plans for sharing vaccines and additional Covid-19 supplies with other countries and North Korea is only a small piece of that puzzle.
The US would also require a system to certify that the vaccines end up in the arms of the North Korean people, said a senior administration official when asked about sharing vaccines with the rogue regime.
“While we are open to considering DPRK requests for humanitarian assistance, these would need to be accompanied by effective monitoring to ensure that it reached the intended beneficiaries,” the senior administration official said. The official also said that there are no current plans to share vaccines with the country and pointed out that North Korea “has refused to cooperate with COVAX and rejected offers of Covid-19 assistance from the ROK.”
Many are skeptical that North Korea would publicly ask for or accept vaccines from the US.
“It would be a great offer but there is no way that Kim Jong Un would ever accept them.There would be paranoia about what would be delivered by the US and there is also the possibility that China could be providing vaccines quietly to North Korean elites,” said Vipin Narang, a professor at MIT.
The Covid-19 situation in North Korea is also unclear. Experts believe the country’s leader Kim Jong Un decided to sever almost all of North Korea’s ties with the outside world because he recognized his country’s dilapidated health care system would be overwhelmed by a Covid-19 outbreak. The country has not reported a major outbreak and there have been no indications one has taken place, though experts doubt Pyongyang’s claim the country has not seen a single case of the virus.
The Biden administration has concluded its North Korea policy review and is making an effort to put diplomacy at the center of their policy towards the country. But details about their planned approach have not been fleshed out and Biden officials are still waiting to see if North Korea will engage.
“I hope that North Korea will take the opportunity to engage diplomatically and to see if there are ways to move forward toward the objective of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said last week. “We’ll look to see not only what North Korea says but what it actually does in the coming days and months.”
The current status of any outreach or dialogue between the US and North Korea is unclear. Biden officials plan to be persistent and demonstrate high level interest in dialogue, one source said. The National Security Council and the State Department would not comment on any recent overtures to North Korea.
The North Koreans did not respond to the Biden administration’s efforts earlier this year to engage them in direct talks.
The administration’s policy review resulted in the administration deciding on a “practical approach” to regime that involved exploring diplomacy and assuring the security of US and allies, Blinken said last week.
The nature of President Joe Biden’s involvement in the North Korea challenge remains unknown. He recently reiterated that North Korea’s nuclear program and Iran’s presented “serious threats to American security and the security of the world.”
During the policy review period, some career officials told Biden officials that they believed the letters between former President Donald Trump and Kim to be productive tools because it is virtually impossible to move the needle with North Korea without buy-in from Kim, current and former officials told CNN. But the theatrics surrounding the letters were something that these career officials found to be unhelpful in propelling tangible results, the officials said.