News sources are reporting that North Korea is confronting a major outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. This virulent disease can be dealt with only by destroying infected stock and quarantining farms that are suffering the outbreak. Given the condition of North Korea’s food stocks, which have remained low, this additional disaster suggests that the North Korean situation may soon become even more dire.
At the same time, the potential for this disease spreading to China—and beyond—offers an opportunity for Sino-U.S. cooperation. When the disease hit South Korea, beginning late last fall, Seoul scrambled to obtain sufficient vaccine for its livestock but has nonetheless suffered major losses. China, whose track record of combating SARS and avian flu is mixed at best, would likely suffer even more substantial losses if hoof-and-mouth disease were to spread from the Korean peninsula into Chinese rural areas.
Washington has the opportunity to generate actual substantial cooperation with Beijing by offering assistance to Chinese agriculture and veterinary authorities in tracking outbreaks of the disease and coordinating treatment, as well as providing additional supplies of vaccine. Such measures would provide an opportunity for concrete progress in Sino-U.S. relations while endangering no U.S. national security interests.
At the same time, such cooperation can serve as a reminder that North Korea constitutes a threat to Chinese well-being, and not simply as a source of political instability on the peninsula. North Korea’s opacity and backwards economy clearly put China at risk, including the health of its farms and its population. The U.S. government should take this opportunity to press the Chinese leadership on coordinating more closely in dealing with North Korea.