The next showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may need to wait until after the coronavirus 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 the coronavirus outbreak. 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.
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.
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.
The outbreak also poses risks to South Korea, with 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.