COVID-19 and North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Averting Catastrophe
The Korea Times Column

COVID-19 and North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Averting Catastrophe

Four months after its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 2.5 million people and already killed over 177,000 globally. The new coronavirus has been described as an “once in a lifetime” health threat of global proportions.

Against apocalyptic scenarios of millions more deaths to come and grim socioeconomic consequences, scientists from many parts of the world have been in a feverish race to find a vaccine to stop the virus and win the battle against this extraordinary threat to humanity.

Paradoxically, there is another race that has been going on for the last eight decades ― the nuclear arms race. But unlike the race for a vaccine whose success is extremely consequential to the security and well-being of the 7.8 billion people on this planet, the nuclear arms race is exclusive to competing great and major powers.

In Asia, we have China, India, Pakistan and North Korea ― the latter coming up as the new “kid” in this exclusive bloc of nuclear weapons states.

The benefits of a nuclear arms race to international peace and security is also contentious given the astronomical cost involved in this unending quest for nuclear arms supremacy, which on one hand heightens major power competition and distrust and raises the risk of more violent conflicts and wars, on the other.

But more importantly, the unthinkable humanitarian consequences of any nuclear events either triggered by human action or accident negate the very logic of embarking on any nuclear weapons program other than deterrence and prestige.

Given the kinds of threats posed by this nuclear arms race and the cost involved, it often defies logic why North Korea remains singularly focused on building its nuclear weapons capability. While data on its nuclear program is hard to get, an NBC report noted South Korea’s estimate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to cost an average of $1-3 billion.

So far, there has yet to be any significant progress made in several multilateral efforts to halt its nuclear weapons program. And despite the much-touted U.S.-North Korea summitries held in Singapore and Hanoi in 2018 and 2019 respectively, North Korea continues to conduct its nuclear missiles tests.

Missiles test amid COVID-19 outbreak: wagging the dog

On April 14, in the middle of the global pandemic that has been ravaging parts of the world, a barrage of North Korean missiles tests were reportedly launched from land and air. These tests were deemed to be Pyongyang’s most-high profile weapons tests that the regime had recently conducted. The intent to show off could not be missed.

Until the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19 yields positive results, much of the fight against this virulent disease depends on the strength and capacity of national health systems.

We have already seen how even the most developed and richest states in North America and Europe have grappled with managing the daunting challenges of COVID-19 ― overwhelmed health systems, lack of testing kits, and shortage in medical equipment including masks and physical protection equipment (PPEs) for their medical personnel.

Note that despite its close proximity to China which was the first epicenter of the outbreak, Pyongyang has yet to report any coronavirus case. With 210 countries already affected, it seems implausible that the country remains free of the virus. As one of the poorest countries in the world, it is not hard to imagine the severe challenges it currently faces in dealing with this highly-infectious disease.

While it boasts of an accelerating nuclear weapons program, the country’s health system is chronically weak and under-resourced. Statistics from WHO reveal a population that suffers from lack of access to basic health care and funding problems for tuberculosis treatments. The World Food Program noted that more than 40 percent of its population are undernourished, and 19 percent of its children are stunted.

Rethinking security: freedom from want and from fear

Ironically, while the rest of the world are working hard to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the North Korean leadership remains laser-focused on preparing for a nuclear “black swan” and showing off its growing strength.

Sadly though, it is clearly poorly equipped to mount a strong defense against the massive onslaught of an unseen enemy. There are already reports that the regime had secretly asked for international help in testing for coronavirus cases and have reached out via back channels for medical supplies and equipment.

If there is anything that the COVID crisis is teaching us about security is that health security is critical to national security. It would indeed do well for the North Korean regime to heed the call of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who made the urgent appeal to the international community to “end the sickness of war and [instead] fight the disease that is ravaging our world … [the] time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

To this end, the state of the global health crisis facing world today presents a unique opportunity to put forth a persuasive argument to Kim Jong-un to rethink its priorities, and to more effort in testing for COVID-19 instead of testing nuclear missiles. This unprecedented health crisis should remind Kim that the rhetoric of “people’s struggle” should in fact be the struggle to combat deadly pandemics from viruses that respects no borders.


Mely Caballero-Anthony is professor of international relations and head of the Centre of Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). Her article was published in cooperation with the APLN.

This article was first published in The Korea Times on 22 April 2020 and is part of dedicated, regular column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can access the original post here.

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