(Bloomberg) -- The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the virus scare.
The U.S. said Thursday that it would postpone joint military exercises planned for the coming weeks, as its ally South Korea copes with one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. The decision removes for now a looming friction point with North Korea, which has denounced the exercises as rehearsal for an invasion and a “main factor of screwing up tensions.”
Meanwhile, North Korea has turned inward since neighboring China sounded the alarm about the new virus strain last month, shutting its borders and trumpeting its prevention campaigns in state media. Moves to provoke the U.S. haven’t materialized since Kim told ruling party leaders on New Year’s Eve that he was no longer bound by a freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
“The virus likely has delayed Pyongyang’s implementation of its U.S. policy,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst for NK News who focuses on North Korean state media. “North Korea has focused on domestic issues after Kim Jong Un’s party plenum speech. After mid-January, the coronavirus has been added to its list of domestic priorities.”
This year was expected to bring a return to tensions on the Korean Peninsula after Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks with the U.S. in 2020 if Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer. The two leaders have made little progress since Trump walked out of their second formal summit last year in Hanoi.
Pressure has piled on Trump in recent days as markets have plummeted on fears the virus will slow the economy, while a whistle-blower cited by the New York Times and Washington Post accused the Department of Health and Human Services of a “failure to protect its employees” responsible for managing the coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected more than 82,000 and killed more than 2,800 worldwide, is particularly concerning to impoverished North Korea, which lacks the public health infrastructure of its more developed neighbors. While the country has yet to report any confirmed cases, the border closures have cut off a vital source of cash needed to soften the blow of international sanctions.
“As the novel coronavirus infection is hard to curb once it has spread, all the regions and units in the DPRK are intensifying their anti-epidemic work against its making inroads into the country with each passing day,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a Feb. 21 news report, referring to the country’s formal name.
The outbreak also poses risks to the allies, with South Korean cases surging to 1,700 in little more than a week. President Moon Jae-in -- a longtime advocate for greater North Korea ties -- is rushing to get the disease under control before April parliamentary elections that will shape the remainder of his single, five-year term.
Some 28,500 American troops are based on the peninsula and at last one U.S. solider has already tested positive for the virus. U.S. Forces Korea raised its risk level to “high” Thursday, restricting service members from attending non-essential, off-base activities and social events that have more than 20 people in attendance.
Military officials said the request to delay the exercise was initially made by South Korea and the U.S. accepted it.
“Coronavirus is a very serious thing,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. “We in the U.S. military and we in the Department of Defense are taking all kinds of appropriate precautions.”
In a separate move, U.S. Forces Korea said Friday it notified thousands of South Korean workers at American military bases that they would be furloughed from April 1 unless Seoul and Washington could reach a new financing deal. Even before the virus erupted, tensions flared between the long-standing allies over a Trump demand for a five-fold increase in what South Korea pays to host U.S. troops
Still, it’s unclear how long the virus will keep tensions at bay. North Korea typically tapers down on its missile testing during its bitter winter and could resume provocations once the weather warms.
“The decision to suspend the exercise probably was purely based on a public health perspective,” said Kim Ki-jung, a professor of political science and international studies at Yonsei University who also had advised former South Korean presidents and the foreign ministry on North Korea issues. “But it brings an incidental effect of deescalating tensions.”
(Adds notice sent to workers on U.S. bases of furlough)
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