Researchers analyze the ingredients of a new disinfectant product at the Ryongaksan Soap Factory in Pyongyang on March 19. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

North Korea, always proud of its founding ruler’s policy of Juche, or self-reliance, has swallowed its pride and asked for help to handle the coronavirus, according to reports. The move was predictable.

Foreign aid is baked into its national DNA.

“Pyongyang has secretly asked for international help to increase coronavirus testing in North Korea as the pandemic threatens to cripple its fragile healthcare system,” London’s Financial Times reported in a story reported from Washington and Seoul.

“In private communications, officials have quietly sought urgent help from their international contacts over the past few weeks, according to several people familiar with the matter and a document seen by the Financial Times,” the FT said.

This was really only a matter of time. Regardless of all the proud talk of Juche, the country was founded with massive aid from the Soviet Union. It industrialized and thrived, by developing-world standards, for three decades in large part thanks to the generosity of the USSR and other Communist-bloc countries.

Then, after the virtual demise of communism, it survived with the reduced help of Beijing, Moscow, the United Nations, various Western NGOs – and even, on occasion, deadly enemies South Korea and the United States.

Only the other day Donald Trump sent a letter to his pal Kim Jong Un offering to help him deal with the virus.

Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong offered thanks but said that a good personal relationship between the leaders was not enough. North Korea wanted the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to have a good relationship, which would require Trump putting some action behind his sweet words.

It sounded then like what she wanted was not so much masks and syringes, but lifted sanctions.

The FT didn’t identify its sources for the story – but it did quote NGO and international organization professional aid-givers as laying out the need for aid. North Korean officials, it said, “did not immediately respond to questions.”

The Washington dateline suggests Kim may indeed see an opening to loosen international and even more onerous US sanctions that were directed at persuading him to denuclearize – something he has not done and has no intention of doing.

The sanctions have severely squeezed an economy that was only starting to recover from the famine and total economic breakdown of the 1990s.

Kim would need a suspension of some sanctions to permit even private aid from within the United States and, much more so, government aid.

It would be ironic if the virus that is wrecking the US economy and making Trump’s re-election look remote is leading to a breakthrough in what is perhaps the toughest US diplomatic challenge of our time. But don’t get your hopes up. North Korea’s ruling Kims have always liked to grin and grip, then take the money and run.

Still, this looks like another illustration that adversity makes strange bedfellows.

In the course of the coronavirus crisis, the United States has offered aid not only to North Korea, but to another old antagonist: China – which trumped the frenemy gesture when billionaire Chinese businessman Jack Ma reciprocated.

Trump asked for help from South Korea, with which he’s been engaged in an eyeball-t0-eyeball standoff over how much the host country will contribute to the cost of keeping US forces there. That request raised eyebrows on social media.

North Korea’s national pride – always outwardly strong even at such low points as the famine and, earlier, the end of the Korean War – peaked in the 1970s and ’80s when the country was (futilely, as it turned out) attempting to keep up with rising South Korea economically and diplomatically. Pyongyang set itself up as an aid giver to less successful countries.

Founder Kim Il Sung engaged in a contest with South Korea to secure diplomatic recognition and support from as many countries as possible, useful in rounding up UN votes. To that end Pyongyang held Kim up as a beacon to the numerous underdeveloped countries of the Third World, wooing them with aid and urging them to emulate North Korean policies and practices.

In 1975, North Korea managed to gain admission to their principal forum, the Non-Aligned Movement.

Could Pyongyang really, at that time, afford an extensive foreign aid program? The regime eventually came to regret its generosity. Kang Myong Do, who had been a member of the Pyongyang elite, said after his defection to the South that excessive aid to Third World countries had caused an actual worsening of North Korea’s own already serious economic problems.

Kim Il Sung, he said, basically had given leaders of African countries such as Algeria, Tanzania and Zaire whatever they had requested – tractors and other machinery, dam construction, weapons, presidential mansions. “For Madagascar, Kim Il Sung armed the entire army,” Kang said. “That’s why they call Madagascar the second North Korea.”

So far I’ve seen no evidence that North Korea is assuming the donor role this time around. That may be partly because it’s sorely strapped by those sanctions and can’t afford to even appear generous. But there’s also the fact that it finally learned a lesson about the perils of playing the deep-pocketed Big Daddy.

What was intended as a propaganda gesture to deadly fraternal enemy South Korea instead confirmed the North on a collision course with disaster. The North Korean organizations responsible for destabilizing and spying on the South came up with the idea of publicly offering massive rice aid in 1984 when the Southerners were hit with floods.

The assumption was that Seoul authorities, as they had always done with such offers, would see the proposal as an attempt to humiliate them (which it was) and reject it. To the Pyongyang leadership’s horror, the Southerners accepted.

In Pyongyang, “Kim Jung Lim, the person in charge, was exiled,” Kang Myong Do reported. “He dug privies for six months.”

From then on to the mid-1990s, it was all downhill for the North Korean economy.

Bradley K. Martin, an Asia correspondent since 1977, is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

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