US walks tightrope as coronavirus hits adversaries

The spread of coronavirus around the globe is raising questions about how the United States should help its adversaries mitigate the disease.

The Trump administration has sent a message to Iran, via the Swiss, offering to help with the disease, while also criticizing Tehran for suppressing information about its spread.

Then there’s North Korea. The hermit kingdom says it has seen no coronavirus cases, but news outlets with contacts on the ground report otherwise. With serious outbreaks in neighboring China and South Korea, regional experts are skeptical the disease hasn’t made its way into North Korea.


Both Iran and North Korea are under harsh U.S. sanctions, even as the international community worries about how their fragile medical systems can handle the disease.

“The United States should be working with and empowering the international organizations in which it's an active participant in, including the U.N., and empowering those organizations to provide even adversarial countries with the humanitarian support that they need,” said Kristine Lee, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s Asia Pacific security program.

Iran has been one of the worst hit countries outside of China, where the virus was first detected. As of Friday, Iran said it had 4,747 confirmed cases and 124 deaths.

The virus has hit the country’s elite, with state media reporting that Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hossein Sheikholeslam, a diplomat who participated in the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, were among the dead. The deputy health minister, vice president and 23 members of parliament, or about 8 percent of the body, have tested positive for the virus.

Amid the outbreak, Iran canceled Friday prayers in major cities, closed schools for two weeks and proposed dispatching militiamen around the country to screen people for the virus and disinfect their homes.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE has slammed Iran for “its suppression of the extent of its coronavirus outbreak,” a criticism he repeated at a press briefing Thursday.


Those remarks came just days after Pompeo revealed that the United States has offered to help Iran.

“The U.S. government is prepared to assist the Iranian people in their response efforts. This offer of support to the Iranian people, which has been formally conveyed to Iran through the government of Switzerland, underscores our ongoing commitment to address health crises and prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” Pompeo said in a statement late last month.

Pompeo’s statement noted that certain humanitarian donations, including medicine, are exempt from U.S. sanctions and that the Treasury Department recently issued a license to allow humanitarian aid to go to Iran through a Swiss channel.

Concerns have been raised, though, that sanctions could nonetheless prevent aid from getting to Iran.

In a letter to Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Former Treasury secretaries tried to resolve debt limit impasse in talks with McConnell, Yellen: report Menendez, Rubio ask Yellen to probe meatpacker JBS MORE on the same day as Pompeo's statement, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAmerica can end poverty among its elderly citizens Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Misguided recusal rules lock valuable leaders out of the Pentagon MORE (D-Mass.) suggested the Swiss mechanism “will not be able to change the ongoing climate of reluctance among risk-averse banks and businesses to finance or facilitate humanitarian transactions.”

She also sought “an assurance that every reasonable effort is being made by the United States to ensure the availability of medicine and other non-sanctionable humanitarian items to the Iranian people to help prevent the further spread of the coronavirus."

While the death toll rises in Iran, there are fears that North Korea is being ravaged by the coronavirus.

“The situation could become extremely dire because it's a very under-serviced health care system that they're dealing with, and the infrastructure is not in a condition in which resources can effectively be distributed,” Lee said. “So looking at coronavirus in North Korea, in particular, I think could be really nothing short of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.”

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who now works at the conservative Heritage Foundation, added that North Korea’s population may be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus because it is “weakened” from food and vitamin deficiency “for years and decades.”

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill said he’s concerned about an outbreak “anywhere there’s closed societies and lack of a medical system,” including North Korea.

While U.S. and United Nations sanctions allow for humanitarian assistance, Klingner noted that in the past sanctions have led to delays in aid delivery.

But he also questioned whether North Korea would accept aid before the disease “starts taking hold” within its borders, arguing that Pyongyang “is the one that has been isolating itself from the world.”


North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korean showcases shirtless soldiers lying on broken glass, smashing bricks on head North Korea's Kim rips US, promises 'invincible' military North Korea's Kim notes 'grim' economy while marking anniversary of ruling party MORE has warned of “serious consequences” if there’s an outbreak. Pyongyang insists it has yet to see any cases, and the World Health Organization likewise has not reported any cases there.

Both Klingner and Lee were highly skeptical of North Korea’s assertion that it has zero cases of coronavirus, with Lee noting the high volume of North Korean workers in China and the porousness of the North Korea-China border before Pyongyang closed it in January.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers this past week that North Korea has put at least 7,000 people under quarantine, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap. And news outlets such as NK News, AsiaPress and Daily NK have reported cases in border towns, citing sources on the ground.

North Korea recently conducted its first short-range missile test of the year, the timing of which is being interpreted by some as projecting strength amid speculation about coronavirus outbreaks.

“When they're in a position where there's a lot of speculation internationally about the domestic situation and speculation about whether coronavirus is penetrating North Korea's borders, I think that there is a need to externally project an image of strength,” Lee said.

While coronavirus is far from good news, there could be a diplomatic silver lining: an opening to revive stagnant talks with North Korea. In a potential sign of just that, Kim sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in this past week offering well-wishes in the South’s fight against the disease.

Lee said such messages between Kim and Moon could provide an avenue for the United States to offer help to North Korea.

“A lot of the diplomacy with North Korea is building up this habit of communication and ensuring that there are lines of communication that are maintained and remain open, as opposed to, you know, long periods of silence where North Korea resorts to its testing of short-range ballistic missiles to signal its displeasure at the state of the current state of play,” she said. “So I think that there is some opportunity.”