The COVID-19 pandemic had disruptive effects on the Korean peninsula, as well as in the rest of the world. Deploying two very different strategies, both Koreas were able to spare their populations from the most tragic consequences in terms of public health. However, the pandemic had important effects on the social and economic systems of both Koreas and also on their mutual relationship and their relations with the rest of the world. In South Korea, after an initial localized outbreak, the government was able to implement early on a very effective strategy based on extensive testing, tracing and social distancing that prevented the situation from escalating out of control. The positive management of the pandemic led to a landslide victory for the party of President Moon Jae-in at the legislative election in April. In the second half of the year, however, existing tensions in domestic politics started to re-emerge. North Korea faced the challenge of the new pandemic with an almost immediate isolation of the country from the rest of the world and the imposition of severe quarantine measures. This strategy prevented the spreading of the virus within the country and preserved the fragile national health system; however, the costs of this isolation, combined with existing international sanctions and natural disasters, led to severe economic problems. Inter-Korean and international relations remained limited during 2020, mostly because of the global consequences of the pandemic. Despite the efforts of President Moon to promote dialogue and cooperation on the peninsula, Pyongyang remained indifferent to these calls and displayed disappointment for the current management of inter-Korean relations through provocations and symbolic acts. The combined effect of the pandemic restrictions and the wait for the US presidential elections dominated international relations for both Koreas. South Korea worked to maintain positive relations with Washington despite some unresolved issues, while North Korea refrained from provocations aimed at the United States.
Keywords – South Korea; North Korea; COVID-19; Inter-Korean relations; South Korea’s legislative elections; Kim Jong Un; Moon Jae-in; Korea-US relations.
Marco Milani | University of Bologna | email@example.com