President Joe Biden and his team will have a plethora of urgent issues to address upon taking office, above all the pandemic, economic recovery and race relations. Yet chances are good that, just as in past presidential transitions, North Korea will find a way to put itself on the front burner. In the past, the Kim regime drew attention to itself with provocations involving missiles and nuclear tests, and that could be the case in 2021 as well. Yet Biden and his team should be on their guard against another form of North Korea crisis — one involving a catastrophic mix of COVID-19, nuclear weapons and a collapsing economy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's speech at the Workers' Party Congress earlier this month made pretty clear that denuclearization is not in the cards for the Biden administration. On the contrary, Kim laid out a pretty ambitious agenda for weapons modernization including hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles, and tactical nuclear weapons. Kim also said he wants to develop ICBMs with precision targeting up to nearly 10,000 miles, which would more than cover the continental United States.
And if Kim gets to work early, Biden could soon find himself confronting missile provocations — just as he did as vice president, when North Korea launched a rocket and exploded a nuclear device soon after President Barack Obama took office.
But there's a difference this time. Kim has issued this latest round of threats amid a raging global pandemic that has shut down the country and crippled an already weak economy. This could become the real source of crisis. Kim should fear U.S. military power far less than the prospect of a pandemic raging across a virtually nonexistent public health infrastructure. While North Korea still claims there are no COVID-19 cases in the country, it has completely locked down its borders, not unlike the lockdowns it imposed in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and SARS in 2003. The economy has suffered dearly as a result, registering an economic downturn in 2020 comparable to the Great Famine in the 1990s, when 10% of the population perished.
Normally, China and South Korea would help out, but the North Koreans have closed off almost all border trade for fear of the virus entering the country. Year-on-year trade with China, far and away the North's leading trade partner, is down over 70%. Indeed, when a disturbed South Korean government official tried to defect to the North last year, the North Korean military not only shot him but also burned the body to avoid any virus transmission.
Vaccines are a long way off. South Korea, the most likely source, does not have them yet and isn't likely to get any earlier than April. China has its own problems with the new virus variant, and its vaccine diplomacy is focused on Africa and Latin America.
All this means there is no end in sight. Our independent study found that in response to the MERS virus in 2015, North Korea stayed locked down for twice the amount of time as South Korea, where the outbreak happened. Can the North Korean economy really survive being shut down for another year or longer? I don't think so.
North Korea may respond to this predicament by trying to take control of the burgeoning private markets inside of the country. The recent party congress suggests that such measures might include forcing hard-working North Korean citizens to hand over precious dollars, renminbi and euros gotten through black markets in return for worthless North Korean won.
Our research interviewing North Korean defectors suggests that most social resistance against the iron hand of the state has taken place whenever the government has attempted anti-market activities like currency reform, extraordinary taxes or market shutdowns. Should the regime become desperate enough to undertake such measures, it could find itself confronting congregations of angry North Koreans that could in turn become COVID-19 superspreader events, compounding the crisis.
A breakdown of such order could mean that the government in Pyongyang may be tempted to lash out militarily at external enemies to justify consolidating control at home through brutal crackdowns. In the worst case, the combination of disease and a deteriorating economy could lead to internal chaos that might endanger government control over its nuclear arsenal. A loose-nukes crisis could end up making a few missile launches look tame.
All these variables mean that the new U.S. administration could face a North Korean crisis unlike any confronting the United States before. Biden would be well-advised to keep a close watch.
Cha is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "The Impossible State: North Korea." This piece was written for The Washington Post.