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View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
If North Korea needs help fighting off the coronavirus, then the U.S. will “give them help,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Sunday.
Trump’s remarks, his first public outreach to Pyongyang since the coronavirus outbreak swelled into a full-fledged global pandemic, comes after DPRK state media reported over the weekend that the President had written a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, praising his response to the outbreak and offering to cooperate on “anti-epidemic” work.
Asked by a reporter if he really had sent a letter to Kim — DPRK state media had acknowledged it before the White House — Trump replied, “Yeah.”
“If they need help, we’ll give them help,” Trump said. “There’s nobody has what we have, especially with the new tests that are coming out.”
“North Korea, Iran, by the way, and others,” he continued. “We are open for helping other countries. And this is a very serious time and North Korea is going through something.”
Trump did not elaborate on what he meant by “going through something,” but North Korea continues to deny having any infections of the highly contagious virus, known as COVID-19, within its borders.
Many experts say that Pyongyang’s bold claim about being totally virus-free is simply not possible given the rapid spread of the disease and the North’s ill-prepared healthcare system.
Meanwhile, reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. have soared in recent days, with many American state and local governments experiencing severe shortages of medical supplies needed to treat the coronavirus and slow its spread.
President Trump did not provide details on how the U.S. would help the North — or if the Americans’ assistance had even been requested.
He did, however, emphasize that his statement should be seen as a gesture of goodwill.
“It’s really a glad hand, it’s all it is, to North Korea, to Iran, and to many other countries,” Trump said.
“And we’re working with — as the doctor can say, we’re working with many countries, with respect to the problems that they have,” he continued. “Again, it’s over 140 countries right now.”
“But North Korea, Iran, and many of the countries, we will help and we’re willing to,” he said.
On Saturday, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) published a statement from high-ranking North Korean official Kim Yo Jong — Kim Jong Un’s sister — referring to Donald Trump’s letter to the North Korean leader and his alleged offer of help.
In her statement, she said that Trump had “explained his plan to propel” U.S.-DPRK relations and “expressed his intent” to cooperate on the coronavirus pandemic.
She also said that Trump and Kim’s “excellent” personal relationship has nothing to do with the broader relationship between the two countries, which is in a far worse state.
In what may have been a sign of that struggling relationship, on Saturday, the DPRK conducted its third short-range missile tests of the month.
“Fortunately, the personal relations between the two top leaders are not as far away as the relations of confrontation between the two countries, and they are very excellent,” Kim Yo Jong said, according to KCNA.
Trump did not acknowledge the missile tests on Sunday. After the DPRK’s first tests of the month, he said that he had “no reaction.”
One former U.S. official told NK News that as kind and generous as Trump’s gesture to Kim Jong Un might seem, it may be difficult for the president to carry through if North Korea does decide to ask for help.
The pandemic, after all, has already spread to all 50 U.S. states and ground many parts of the American economy essentially to a halt.
“The fact that Trump sent the letter offering assistance was probably a good thing and a helpful demonstration of good will, even if, as we have seen, the United States is not in much of a position to help anyone thanks to its inability to manage well its own response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Evans Revere, a former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
But beyond the coronavirus, Revere said, Trump should still be paying attention to another urgent matter happening in North Korea: its steady stream of missile launches.
“While I’m all for the president telling the North Koreans that America wishes them well and wants to help, I’m troubled that President Trump continues to ignore Pyongyang’s ongoing efforts to improve its ballistic missile and long-range artillery capability,” he said.
“This has the effect of treating North Korea’s violations of its international obligations as ‘business as usual’ and thereby legitimizing them.”
“I suspect the North Koreans wanted to publicly reinforce the message they have been transmitting for a while that, while they welcome the good ties between Kim and Trump, that is not enough,” Revere added.
“The U.S. needs to do more, particularly in the current environment, and if it doesn’t, then North Korea has a clear path down which it will travel.”