Is “Vaccine Diplomacy” the Right Prescription for the Korean Peninsula?

In an op-ed, published Thursday in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, suggests that “vaccine diplomacy” could improve relations between North Korea and South Korea.

From joint neglected tropical disease (NTD) treatment efforts to scientific alliances, Hotez argues that it could be “a breakout year for science and vaccine diplomacy to reduce the disease burden on the Korean peninsula and promote an unprecedented level of scientific collaboration.”

But according to experts who study the region, Hotez’s vision may be a long shot.

“DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] is extremely distrustful and unlikely willing to expose themselves to lethal transmissible diseases in the name of science or anything else,” says Roger Cavazos, an associate at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, which is based in Berkeley, Calif. (South Korea is also called the Republic of Korea).

It “make eminent economic sense” for North Korea to work with South Korea to control NTDs, because so few medicines are available in the so-called Hermit Kingdom, according to Cavazos. But he doesn’t think Pyongyang will go for it. “It’s ‘humanitarian,’ but I think the reflexive DPRK reaction to the word is negative. Better to cast it initially in terms that are palatable to them,” he says.

Hotez is “not proposing any technical silver bullets,” admits Cavazos, a retired 22-year U.S. Army veteran. The tools and technology necessary to facilitate the NTD and scientific collaborations proposed in the op-ed do exist, but Hotez’s suggestions just aren’t likely to be achieved right now, he says.

That could be, in part, because 2013 has the makings of a “‘normal’ year for North-South relations,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Earlier this week, news broke that North Korea might carry out a new nuclear test, and countries involved in the Six-Party Talks are undergoing leadership transitions. “All leaders, save for Kim Jong Un, will opt for crisis management or appeasement, as preoccupied with domestic affairs as they will be,” Lee says. “Kim will exploit this and continue to provoke on the assumption that higher stakes will bring bigger blandishments.”

Then there’s the overriding geopolitical situation. “It will be very difficult for any kind of joint ROK/DPRK activity in the health sector, due to the fact that the DPRK considers that the peninsula is still in a state of war,” notes Victor W. C. Hsu, a faculty member at the Korea Development Institute. “The DPRK will certainly welcome medicine, medical supplies and medical equipment from the ROK.  But that is about all in terms of North/South collaboration for now.”

When presented with criticism that his plan for Korean peninsula collaboration is unrealistic, Hotez said complicated problems require creative solutions.

“Who would have believed that Dr. Albert Sabin could collaborate with Soviet virologists to develop and test the first oral polio vaccine in the late 1950s and into 1960? Yet it happened right after the Soviet Sputnik launch and around Soviet testing of the hydrogen bomb, including the world’s largest ever man-made explosion,” he wrote in an email.

“That’s the point of vaccine diplomacy — it’s not supposed to be easy.”