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COVID Outbreak in North Korea and US Attempts to Strengthen ties with Southeast Asian Countries

May 12-18, 2022 | Issue 7 - PACOM

Francesca Cavazzuti, Ashani Wijesuriya, PACOM Team

Hannah Norton, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief of Staff



COVID-19 in North Korea[1]



Date: May 12, 2022

Location: North Korea

Parties involved: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un; North Korean government; North Korean official state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA); North Korean military’s medical arm; Russian government; Chinese government

The event: After claiming to be uncontaminated by the pandemic for more than two years, North Korea has reported its first COVID-19 outbreak, with the KCNA reporting 42 deaths. The outbreak is suspected to be linked to a military parade that occured on April 25, where Kim addressed thousands of Pyongyang residents.[2] Kim has blamed health officials for their response and management of the outbreak, stating that it is due to their lack of organization and "irresponsible work attitude." North Korea is suspected to have a large unvaccinated population and insufficient medical capabilities for combatting COVID-19. Kim has ordered the military’s medical arm to mobilize, coordinate, and stabilize the supply of medicine to address the outbreak.[3]

Analysis & Implications:

  • North Korea will likely be unable to contain the COVID-19 outbreak among their malnourished and unvaccinated population. Economic conditions are likely to worsen, very likely increasing North Korea’s reliance on international partners. North Korea will very likely depend on assistance from Russia and China, with China more likely to provide aid than Russia due to the Ukrainian conflict. Chinese-North Korean relations will likely strengthen, allowing China to further bolster its presence in the South China Sea.

  • It is unlikely that the outbreak is North Korea’s first surge in COVID-19 cases but it is likely to be its largest, prompting state officials to control the media narrative surrounding the outbreak. Kim very likely predicted the current outbreak would be difficult to contain, which almost certainly accounts for reports of him blaming health officials to prevent negative perceptions forming among North Koreans about his capabilities. He likely aims to foster a positive image globally, especially to South Korea’s new president, out of fear of being perceived as weak.

  • There is a roughly even chance North Korea will relax some of its mass surveillance techniques, such as the use of civilian informants, information sharing sessions, and other methods of monitoring requiring close physical contact, in an effort to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. They will likely re-orient efforts on technical surveillance using security cameras and wiretapping. It will likely rely on trade partnerships with China to import more electronic and technical surveillance equipment, allowing North Korea to modernize its mass surveillance apparatus.


Date: May 12-13, 2022

Location: Washington DC, USA

Parties involved: US Vice President Kamala Harris; US government; Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); Chinese government; UN

The event: An ASEAN summit took place in Washington as the US attempted to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy in response to China's expansion. The US promised around $150 million to support ASEAN countries with clean energy, maritime security, and digital development initiatives in the region. China is not an ASEAN member, but has important trade and investment agreements with ASEAN states via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Harris stated that the US and ASEAN “will guard against threats to international rules and norms," indirectly referring to China’s militarized islands in the South China Sea.[4]

Analysis & Implications:

  • The US’ pledge to invest in maritime security likely suggests their intention to enhance military cooperation with ASEAN countries through increased arms trade and official military exchanges. US-ASEAN military cooperation will likely include multilateral joint military drills in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese expansion. Military drills will likely involve defensive and counteroffensive air and sea training to simulate a response to a potential Chinese attack from its military bases in the South China Sea. China will likely respond by conducting sea and air patrol activities near the maritime borders of ASEAN countries participating in drills with the United States.

  • Harris’s statement likely suggests that US-ASEAN countries will attempt to halt China’s military expansion in the South China Sea by turning to the UN. Given China’s previous responses to UN rulings, it is almost certain that China will disregard UN warnings and continue military operations in the South China Sea. Faced with the very likely failure of diplomatic solutions, ASEAN countries are very unlikely to take an aggressive approach to resolve the dispute, likely to avoid military or economic retaliation from China. ASEAN countries will very likely limit their opposition to individual and multilateral communiqués via the UN and international media.

  • Pledged money from the US likely suggests the intention to deepen its economic cooperation with ASEAN countries and reduce their economic ties with China. There is almost no chance the $150 million will be sufficient to finance large investment projects, such as the enhancement of ASEAN local products on the international market, to boost the Indo-Pacific region’s economic growth. ASEAN countries are very unlikely to view the US as an economic alternative to China as a result. ASEAN countries will very likely maintain their trade and investments with China, whose major BRI infrastructure projects will likely help them become more competitive regional and international trade centers.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]COVID-19 Coronavirus Molecules on North Korean Flag” by Darryl Fonseka licensed under Unsplash

[2] North Korea reports 15 more suspected COVID-19 deaths, AP News, May 2022, https://apnews.com/article/covid-health-pandemics-south-korea-flu-d6c20af012cd035bcf411dbf952a3a5e

[3] North Korea's Kim Jong Un blames "irresponsible" workers for apparent explosion in COVID-19 cases, CBS News, May 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/north-korea-covid-kim-jong-un-blames-workers-as-coronavirus-cases-soar/

[4] US: Joe Biden hosts ASEAN leaders amid concerns over China, DW, May 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/us-joe-biden-hosts-asean-leaders-amid-concerns-over-china/a-61782176

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