Originally published in Hankyoreh.
A recent military parade in Pyongyang showcased the country’s intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim Jong Un used the opportunity of the spectacle to promise that he would push the country’s nuclear program forward at maximum speed. To top it off, North Korea has been improving its tactical nuclear weapons, which means that it may soon be able to threaten South Korea with a nuclear strike as well.
North Korea’s nuclear program has been the perennial threat that concerns South Korea, East Asia, and the United States. Some pundits are even suggesting that the nature of this threat has recently changed—that North Korea is no longer just interested in possessing nuclear weapons in order to deter attacks by other countries. Instead, as Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin argues, North Korea is now seriously considering using nuclear weapons for offensive purposes as part of an effort to take over the Korean peninsula.
This seems far-fetched. Pyongyang has difficulty even maintaining control of its own territory. Having seen Russia’s embarrassing failure to take over Ukraine, a considerably weaker country, the North Korean government can’t seriously believe that it could invade and control South Korea, a considerably stronger country.
True, Russia’s nuclear weapons have made the United States and NATO reluctant to confront Russian forces directly in Ukraine, but they haven’t provided the Kremlin with any practical advantage over Ukraine on the battlefield. Given the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and U.S. security guarantees to South Korea, Pyongyang wouldn’t be able to use nuclear blackmail to aid in some hare-brained effort to seize the entire peninsula.
After all, Pyongyang knows that any use of nuclear weapons, be they against its southern neighbor or the United States, will result in massive retaliation. The North Korean leadership would be committing suicide if it launched an ICBM or tactical nuke.
No, in fact, nuclear weapons are not the biggest threat that North Korea poses to the world. North Korea’s greatest liability is something that it currently views as an asset: its radical isolation.
To protect itself against COVID-19, North Korea has closed its borders. During the pandemic, it even shut down trade with its principal economic partner, China, only resuming trade in January. Virtually all diplomatic staff have left the country, and so have humanitarian aid workers.
Fine, you might say, isolation befits North Korea. It doesn’t produce anything that the world particularly wants, unlike Russia and its oil, gas, and military exports. If it doesn’t want to play with others, it should be left undisturbed in its own sandbox.
But such isolation is actually dangerous—and not just for North Koreans.
As part of its radical isolationism, North Korea has refused any COVID vaccines. It has so far turned down offers of three million doses of Sinovac and two million of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine.
The country’s population of 25 million unvaccinated people offers COVID an extraordinary opportunity not only to spread but also to mutate. A powerful new Pyongyang variant would not stay within the borders of North Korea. Even those who have little empathy for the plight of North Koreans have to understand that a new COVID variant could potentially kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people all over the world.
Providing North Korea with tens of millions of doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines— the more effective drugs that the North Korean government reportedly prefers—would neutralize the country’s inadvertent biological weapon.
But North Korea’s isolation is dangerous for other reasons.
Economic isolation has pushed Pyongyang to pursue black market strategies to make money in global markets. It has been involved in the production of narcotics, particularly crystal meth. It has long been rumored to have produced counterfeit $100 bills. And it has unleashed its world-class hackers to extort money through various cyber-blackmail schemes and cryptocurrency manipulations.
The cultural isolation of the population has made it easier for the government to maintain its control over society. True, North Koreans manage to get some information from the outside, including South Korean TV dramas. But isolation increases the atomization of the population, making it all the more difficult to develop a civil society apart from the government sphere.
And the geopolitical isolation of the country—North Korea doesn’t belong to any regional organizations and, aside from the United Nations, few international organizations—makes it difficult to embed the country into the system of global laws and norms.
The North Korean government is certainly ambivalent about its isolation. On the one hand, Pyongyang doesn’t want to expose itself to what it considers to be various political and economic viruses—democracy, an unregulated free market—circulating in the outside world. On the other hand, the North Korean leadership recognizes that it cannot achieve its goal of a “strong and prosperous nation” behind high, impregnable walls. It has, for instance, consistently relied on China to sustain its economy. But the North Korean leadership views its current dependency on Chinese trade to be unacceptable, both because of the perceived inferior quality of Chinese goods and because of the risk of China using its advantage to put pressure on Pyongyang.
The bottom line is that North Korea wants to engage the outside world on its own terms.
Generally, the outside world has not been willing to meet North Korea halfway. Sanctions impede any serious economic engagement with the country. Hostile rhetoric prevents most political engagement. Even cultural engagement has been largely off the table, particularly during the pandemic.
These efforts to reinforce North Korea’s isolation are counter-productive. They only push the country into engaging in more of the behaviors that the outside world finds so noxious. And, in the case of COVID vaccines and humanitarian assistance, the outside world may well be creating the conditions for a catastrophe of massive proportions that will inevitably have negative consequences far beyond North Korea’s borders.