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Disaster Diplomacy for North Korea: Pandemic and Famine

Could food and vaccine aid to North Korea open up the country to the world?

Key points

  • No case studies of disaster diplomacy have yet been shown to succeed.
  • North Korea displays a long history of humanitarian aid failing to create lasting diplomacy.
  • The current famine and COVID-19 situations are unlikely to create a step change without efforts from all parties.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has publicly admitted that the country faces food shortages while also seeking COVID-19 vaccines. Could this situation provide an opportunity to enact "disaster diplomacy"? Past experience suggests it is unlikely to work.

When North Korea suggests they might have problems, it usually means a calamity. While they place blame on storms and the COVID-19-related border closure with China, the causes of North Korea's disasters run far deeper than recent events. Disaster diplomacy failures likewise have a long history.

Disaster diplomacy research analyzes how and why disaster-related activities do and do not influence conflict and cooperation among governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. Disaster-related activities mean before and after a catastrophe, incorporating prevention, preparation, mitigation, risk reduction, response, recovery, and reconstruction.

Across dozens of examples, none yet demonstrate any success in disaster-related activities creating new, long-term diplomacy. It has been the same with North Korea through the decades.

After the Korean War ended in 1953, North Korea closed to much of the outside world. Even with continuing local, national, regional, and international disaster-related activities, as well as many disasters, few long-term influences on the peninsula’s politics have emerged. Examples range from typhoons to medical diplomacy through American non-governmental organizations providing health support.

In 1995, long-term mismanagement of agriculture culminated in a horrendous famine across North Korea. International relief operations swung into gear but soon lost momentum. From tracking the aid provided to efforts to connect with North Korea beyond China, efforts to help and engage with the isolated state soon faltered.

Fast-forwarding to March 2000, North Korea accepted food aid from Japan while agreeing to talks. In June that year, Pyongyang hosted South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, leading to food aid going North in September, and the next month, Dae-jung winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ilan Kelman
Not even the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize brought reconciliation to the Korean Peninsula (the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo).
Source: Ilan Kelman

The rapprochement and the aid were short-lived. North Korea took some of the needed aid, gave few concessions, threatened violence, reacted harshly to Dae-jung's Nobel Peace Prize, sent military incursions into South Korea, and tested missiles. In 2002, US President George W. Bush named North Korea as part of his "Axis of Evil," further degrading connections between the two countries.

A familiar pattern repeated over the next two decades. Potential flooding in June 2002 witnessed both cooperation and a war of words between North Korea and South Korea. On 22 April 2004, thousands died in a train crash and explosion north of Pyongyang, leading to international aid—and wrangling over it. Subsequent high-level defense negotiations produced some cooperation, which then faded away.

Medicine for swine flu reached North Korea from South Korea in December 2009. 2012 saw a famine and two typhoons strike North Korea, followed by a tangled web of aid offers, aid acceptances, aid refusals, and weapons tests.

Meanwhile, an international team of scientists launched a multi-year collaboration to better understand the volcanology of Mount Paektu (Changbaishan/Baekdusan), straddling the China-North Korea border. This science diplomacy for disasters proceeded with the potential to help the planet since the mountain's last explosion over a millennium ago appears to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions that humanity has ever experienced.

2020 then brought the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea quickly closed the few links open to the outside world and continues to claim no cases of the disease. South Korea and the international vaccine sharing program COVAX have had on-again, off-again initiatives to send vaccines to North Korea. Even when vaccinations reach the country, few glimmers are expected from vaccine diplomacy.

Now, seemingly, a catastrophe of hunger is unfolding. Irrespective of international sanctions against North Korea and the country's claims of extensive recycling, the root cause of the famine is undoubtedly long-term oppression, livelihood mismanagement, and diverting resources to weapons.

The chances of humanitarian relief supporting long-term improvement in North Korea's relations with the world are slim. The most likely outcome is repeating what has happened before: opening a crack to gain assistance and then severing the links.

Diplomacy, though, is about people. People make decisions, and anything is possible when people are involved.

Carefully but actively pursuing peace and reconciliation does sometimes produce positive consequences. All parties involved must aim to achieve this goal—including North Korea. A single success would render the current disaster diplomacy conclusion that disaster-related activities do not create new, lasting diplomacy outdated.

Even so, the key point remains that no inevitable link occurs between friendship and dealing with disasters. Each must be sought in order to succeed. Where diplomacy is not a goal, then it is doomed to fail. Where isolationism or political power is more important than saving lives, then disasters must continue.

This time, as always, we can hope for a better outcome in and from North Korea. Hope does not mean relying on humanitarianism to create positive political change.


Kelman, I. 2012. Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict. Routledge, Abingdon, U.K.

Kelman, I. 2016. "Catastrophe and Conflict: Disaster Diplomacy and Its Foreign Policy Implications". Brill Research Perspectives in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-76.

Kelman, I. 2019. "Do Health Interventions Support Peace through 'Disaster Diplomacy?'" Peace Review, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 158-167.

Kelman, I. 2020. "Pandemic diplomacy: Peace in our time?" European Sociologist, vol. 45, no. 1,…

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