A Perfect Storm: Victor Cha Talks COVID-19 Threat to North Korea, Nuclear Deadlock

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A woman holding a balloon with Korean writing on it
A North Korean defector, now living in South Korea, prepares to release balloons carrying propaganda leaflets denouncing North Korea's nuclear test, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on September 15, 2016 in Paju, South Korea. The leaflets also denounce the North Korean government for their human rights abuses.
Photo credit: 
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

North Korea continues to declare that it has not had a single case of COVID-19, but health experts find it inconceivable that the infectious disease would not be in the country given its proximity to China and South Korea, two early victims of the pandemic. A coronavirus outbreak in the North could be devastating, says Asian affairs and security expert Victor Cha, as it would act on an extremely vulnerable population with already-compromised immune systems and outdated health care infrastructure.

Cha, professor of government and holder of the D.S. Song-KF Chair in Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, has joined Shorenstein APARC as the Koret Fellow in Korean Studies for the winter quarter of 2020. He spoke with APARC via videoconferencing about the threat of COVID-19 to North Korea, the deadlock in the diplomacy of denuclearization, and the North Korean human rights problem.

COVID-19 or not, the Kim regime has recently stepped up again its weapons testing. The North typically resorts to missile tests, notes Cha, in periods of non-dialogue with the United States, and the data also shows that North Korea will bolster weapons testing before and after U.S. presidential elections.

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What is to be done about engagement with the North? Cha believes that any new U.S. administration should prioritize three areas: first, focus not only on North Korea’s nuclear program but also on its ballistic missile delivery capability; second, enable the flow of humanitarian assistance into the country; and third, genuinely work with our allies and partners in the region, “who have tended to be neglected lately and seen in largely transactional terms.”

While at Stanford, Cha has been researching a project that he calls “Binary Choices” and that examines how U.S. allies and partners in Asia react when they are forced to choose between the United States and China over various issues. Regardless of how one feels about the U.S.-China trade war, Cha concludes, the question is if we are “calculating the other externalities, in terms of how our allies make choices, into our net assessment of whether a policy towards China is working or not.”

Watch the Q&A with Cha here or on our YouTube channel: