Is there any basis or precedent for contemplating such a “crazy” proposal? The US has in the past had other opportunities to do the right thing and change the dynamics of our relationship with North Korea. The DPRK suffered from massive flooding in August 2007. The devastation was so bad that the regime uncharacteristically appealed for international aid.
As deputy commander of US Pacific Command (PACOM, which in 2018 was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, or INDOPACOM), I suggested offering an airdrop of humanitarian rations from American military cargo planes. Multiple populations, already deprived, had been completely isolated by the floods. Similar drops had been used to feed refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earthquake victims in Pakistan. At the commander’s direction, PACOM prepared a proposal and submitted it to the US Secretary of Defense.
The premise of this initiative included had three components. First, such an airdrop could help alleviate a legitimate crisis when other forms of aid delivery were not feasible. Second, insofar as the DPRK had requested aid, any refusal of an unconditional relief effort would further demonstrate the regime’s unwillingness to address the needs of the North Korean people, contrary to the R2P principle. Finally, whether the aid had been accepted or not, the proposal would open a new avenue of dialogue between the United States and North Korea.
Then-secretary of defense Robert Gates warmed to the proposal and directed further planning by the Pacific Command team. Rations were available, as were C-17 cargo aircraft. The staff estimated that aid could be delivered to isolated areas of the DPRK within 60 hours of approval. Forwarded to the National Security Council for consideration, the proposal was still under review when the urgency of the situation abated, and the opportunity was lost.
The 2007 flooding is one of many cases that suggest that a DPRK collapse is unlikely, and that hoping for or expecting it is unrealistic. North Koreans rulers have demonstrated the ability to maintain control through economic and natural calamities, and the population of North Korea has shown remarkable resilience. Anticipation of collapse is more than unrealistic; it is a basis for the flawed strategy of hoping for major change while maintaining a very dangerous status quo. Collapse, whether from natural disaster or disease, would present enormous humanitarian challenges and put control of DPRK nuclear weapons in doubt. A serious outbreak of Covid-19 in North Korea could have the same effect.
Planning and implementing such a bold initiative would require consideration of so many factors. That would be the job of the US administration and its various departments. Providing vaccines to the people of North Korea would be a deft yet difficult ascent to the moral high ground, but for the United States, this would be a daring climb worth making.