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What Happens Next with North Korea Now That Kim Jong-un’s Back

5 minute read
Ian Bremmer is a foreign affairs columnist and editor-at-large at TIME. He is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. He teaches applied geopolitics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his most recent book is The Power of Crisis.

Late last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—who since mid-April had been rumored to be either dead, brain-dead, or otherwise incapacitated—made a return to the public eye (surprise!) when he appeared at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new fertilizer plant. His reemergence has put concerns about his health on the backburner (for now), which means North Korean observers can go back to worrying about how coronavirus is impacting North Korea.

Why It Matters:

Coronavirus is the kind of multidimensional crisis that hits a country’s economy, political stability, and relations with other countries all at the same time. And for a country like North Korea, such a triple-punch could lead Kim to lash out internationally (think: missile tests, brash rhetoric, cyberattacks, etc…), the last thing the world needs during a pandemic.

For the record, North Korea claims that there are no coronavirus cases in the country. Obviously, that should be taken with a whole mountain of salt (North Korea’s neighbor China says hi). But if worries about North Korea’s handling of the worst pandemic the world has seen in over a century weren’t enough, it also comes on the heels of a poor harvest season. The last time North Korea had widespread famine in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people starved to death (at least).

Coronavirus compounds concerns about food supplies, as the pandemic’s impact on global supply chains combined with international sanctions limits the ability of North Korea to secure the critical items it needs to feed itself; there are already reports that fertilizer and other critical farming inputs aren’t reaching North Korea because of quarantine precautions (which explains why Kim decided to make his “return” at a fertilizer plant).

In normal circumstances, North Korea’s first port of call is China, but China is busy trying to control its own epidemic. China is also likely feeling less generous with aid given its own economic squeeze during the pandemic and wary of engaging in trade for fear of importing Coronavirus from North Korea… not to mention wanting to avoid ticking off the U.S. more than it already has. To that end, China has tightened border restrictions, making it even more difficult for North Korea to conduct business—legitimate or otherwise—with its main access point to the outside world.

There are rumblings that prices of imported goods have increased in North Korea, and that Pyongyang is leaning on businesses to accept government bonds as payment for what they supply to it. That’s never a good sign; if North Korea’s economy deteriorates significantly alongside a poor harvest season, that boosts the risk that Kim will act up and out.

What Happens Next:

If North Korea were any other country in the world, it would ask for help in times of crisis. But aid is tricky since North Korea is in the power projection business, and asking for international assistance undercuts that image. And truth be told, even if Pyongyang receives aid from abroad, it’s more likely than not that the bulk of it ends up in the pockets of the country’s elites rather than the pockets of ordinary North Koreans.

That puts Kim in the unenviable position of being at the mercy of the global economy, hoping it picks up in short order so that key countries, China chief among them, emerge relatively intact and are able to offer Pyongyang more economic and trade assistance. Should that happen, it would lessen the likelihood that Kim feels a need to ratchet up engagement in extortion, cybercrime, or missile test threats.

If the global economy doesn’t pick up though, that’s where the real difficulty begins for Kim. He will have to decide how the North Korea story is playing for U.S. President Donald Trump domestically; Kim’s more likely to make aggressive moves in an attempt to gain more attention and force more concessions from Trump, especially if he thinks he has leverage because Trump needs to keep North Korea as a “win” ahead of the presidential election in November.

But that also depends on Trump’s own reading of his political situation. If a frustrated Kim causes problems on the world stage that Trump thinks make him appear weak, he might take a harder line against any North Korean provocations and also lash out at China and South Korea (two of the most sympathetic governments to the Kim regime these days). If, on the other hand, Trump thinks it’s in his interest to show himself extending a helping hand to North Korea, and that it pushes Pyongyang closer to an acceptable resolution, he’ll do that despite the inevitable criticism he’d face from his political opponents.

This all assumes the situation in North Korea doesn’t deteriorate so significantly and so quickly that an economically- and food-starved North Korea prompts Kim to press even harder for international sanctions be lifted once and for all, backing up his demands with rhetoric, missile tests, and whatever else he has in his arsenal. Should that come to pass, the world may be looking at its first (though by no means last) coronavirus-induced geopolitical crisis.

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