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US military issues final furlough notices to nearly half its South Korean workforce, union says


SEOUL, South Korea – The U.S. military will put nearly half its South Korean workforce on unpaid leave starting next week after the two countries failed to reach a new defense cost-sharing deal, the local union said Wednesday as final furlough notices went out.

The allies met in Los Angeles earlier this month but remained deadlocked over U.S. demands for a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution to offset the costs of stationing some 28,500 American troops on the divided peninsula.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said plans for future meetings were on hold because of restricted travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, but negotiators would continue talks via phone calls and video conference calls.

The South has helped support U.S. troops under the so-called Special Measure Agreement since 1991, with most of the funds used for more than 9,000 South Korean employees, logistical support and construction projects.

The previous contract expired at the end of 2019, but the United States had been paying the salaries with programmed funds that will run out at the end of this month.

U.S. Forces Korea said it has completed its analysis to determine which local employees can be retained with additional Pentagon funds for critical operations related to “life, health, safety and readiness services.”

“USFK began issuing furlough notification letters to (Korean National) employees who are subject to the furlough today. Unfortunately, due to the continued absence of an agreed upon SMA, USFK will be furloughing a portion of our KN employees next week,” the public affairs office said in a statement.

It didn’t provide numbers, but a representative of the USFK Korean Employees’ Union Son Gio and another union official said about 4,000 members had received furlough notices.

The issue doesn’t affect non-appropriated fund organizations such as on-base restaurants and exchange stores.

Military officials also have said the hospital on Camp Humphreys, other medical facilities, law enforcement, schools, commissaries and post office services will see little to no effect thanks to mitigating measures.

The union called for the rules to be revised as part of the negotiations to better guarantee their labor rights.

“The South Korean government should no longer allow the situation that laborers are held hostage whenever the South Korean-U.S. SMA negotiations are held,” it said during a news conference in Seoul.

USFK officials have said the furloughed employees won’t receive back pay and won’t be allowed to work on a volunteer basis.
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North Korea doubles down on missile development, military exercises with global focus on coronavirus outbreak

With international focus on the coronavirus, North Korea has doubled down on its missile development and military exercises in recent weeks while signalling new confidence that it has dodged an outbreak of its own.

Some international experts are skeptical of North Korea’s assertion that it has not had a single case of the new coronavirus, which was first detected in neighboring China.

But for the first time since late February, North Korean soldiers conducting military drills and test firing short-range ballistic missiles over the weekend were shown not wearing face masks in state media photographs.

North Korea has said it has released almost all the foreigners it quarantined as a precaution, and in a decision that surprised some experts, announced it would hold a big gathering of its Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in early April.

“I’m a bit surprised that North Korea decided to go ahead with its spring SPA session,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst for NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.

“That said, this is in line with an apparent shift in North Korean media handling of the coronavirus in the past two weeks which suggested the North Korean regime’s increased confidence in managing the coronavirus situation.”

Besides the SPA announcement, leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, released a statement through state media on Sunday commenting on U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest letter to North Korea, offering coronavirus assistance.

But much of the messaging from Kim Jong-un appears “laser focused” at the domestic audience, said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“He’s apparently trying to show his confidence and strength to his people, that he is in control, and that the regime is functioning normally by pursuing its strategic objectives despite a national crisis over a virus they have no control over,” she said.

“He needs to keep his constituents in Pyongyang happy and trying to show North Korea is invincible.”


State media has broadcast a stream of reports on how seriously the government is taking its virus-prevention efforts.

One report in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Monday, for example, said a local party official had been punished for undermining nationwide coronavirus prevention measures by organizing drinking parties.

“Under the present situation that witnesses intensified campaign against COVID-19, it comes to be an important political matter that all the people should observe the standards and orders set under the state emergency anti-epidemic system,” the paper said in an editorial, referring to the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Some foreign observers have noted that North Korea’s authoritarian government is actually well placed to impose the kind of restrictions that have been successful in slowing the spread of infections in other countries, and that it has a high number of doctors per capita.

But aid organisations have warned that North Korea’s health system is chronically under-resourced, often fails to meet the daily needs of citizens, and would be hard-pressed to handle any major outbreak of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 337,000 people and killed more than 14,650 around the world.

“Hearing from my relatives there, one thing for sure is the situation is very serious,” said a North Korean defector living in South Korea.

“Otherwise they wouldn’t be so loud on the news about this. There is no way for the residents to know who died.”

The insistence on no coronavirus cases, the SPA presidium and the missile tests were intended to show it was business as usual in North Korea, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.

“Kim Jong Un is trying really hard to project the image that all is good,” Pardo said in a post on Twitter.

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Day after missile test, North says Trump sent letter offering coronavirus aid

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Sunday welcomed a letter sent by President Donald Trump offering help in fighting the coronavirus but warned that good relations between the leaders was not enough to restart nuclear talks.

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects military exercise at an undisclosed location in North Korea on Saturday, March 21, 2020. KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY,KOREA NEWS SERVICE/ AP

Underscoring the continued threat, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a missile test on Saturday as the communist state pressed forward with weapons development amid the diplomatic deadlock.

Kim’s sister praised Trump for sending a letter “at a time as now when big difficulties and challenges lie in the way of developing the bilateral relations.”

Trump explained his plan to improve relations between the two countries, Kim Yo Jong said, without elaborating, in a statement on the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

He also “expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work, saying that he was impressed by the efforts by the chairman to defend his people from the serious threat of epidemic,” she was quoted as saying.

The reclusive North has insisted that it has had no cases of the deadly virus, which first appeared late last year in China, then spread globally. South Korea and the United States have faced massive outbreaks.

However, U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that the North has escaped the pneumonia-like illness.

The State Department said last month that it feared the disease could cause a humanitarian disaster in the impoverished nation, offering to help aid groups.

Kim Jo Yong stressed the relationship between the two leaders, who have exchanged several letters, remained “very excellent” but warned that was not a guarantee for peace.

“Nobody knows how much the personal relations would change,” she was quoted as saying.

“And it is not something good to make hasty conclusion or be optimistic about.”

She alluded to the fact that the country faces hardship from stringent U.S.-led economic sanctions aimed at driving it back to the nuclear negotiating table.

“If impartiality and balance are not provided and unilateral and greedy intention is not taken away, the bilateral relations will continue to aggravate,” she said. “Even at this moment we are working hard to develop and defend ourselves on our own under the cruel environment which the U.S. is keen to provide.”

Trump and Kim have held three summits, but diplomacy stalled after they failed to reach an agreement during a meeting in February 2019 in Vietnam.

The talks stalled due to deep differences over the extent of sanctions relief in exchange for steps toward nuclear disarmament.

North Korea resumed weapons tests last year after a hiatus in 2018 but so far has only launched short-range missiles, which could threaten U.S. forces and other targets in South Korea but not the continental United States.

Trump, who once said he and Kim “fell in love,” has signaled the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile would be a red line.

The North launched two short-range ballistic missiles that flew more than 250 miles across the country at an apogee of 31 miles toward the sea off the eastern coast on Saturday, South Korea’s military said.

The missiles were launched from Sonchon, northwest of Pyeongyang, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul. It called the action “very inappropriate behavior” considering the world is struggling to contain COVID-19.

The tactical guided weapon “precisely hit a target islet” after Kim gave the order to fire, the

North’s Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday, adding the test was “aimed at reconfirming and showing “the tactical characters and power of a new weapon system” to be delivered to army units.

Kim called it “a brilliant success” and called on his forces to “further build up the striking capability which can wipe out any enemy out of our territory if it dare designs to launch a military action against our state,” KCNA said.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., said in a tweet that pictures published by North Korea showed it had tested a KN-24, which appears to be modeled after the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System.

It was the latest in a series of missile and artillery drills this year.

The show of strength comes after the United States and South Korea canceled plans for a joint military training exercise this month because of fears for troops’ health as the number of coronavirus cases soared on the divided peninsula.

The allies insist they are continuing regular training and remain ready to fight if needed.

Some 28,500 American service members are stationed in South Korea, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

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North Korea Fires Two ‘Ballistic Missiles’ into Sea

The South Korean military condemned the launches as “extremely inappropriate given the difficult situation the world is experiencing due to COVID-19… We urge them to stop immediately.”

North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, which has turned into a major crisis with more than 11,000 deaths and over 250,000 infections worldwide.

There has been widespread speculation, however, that the virus has reached the isolated nation, and health experts have warned that it could devastate the country given its weak medical infrastructure and widespread malnutrition.

Japan’s defense ministry also confirmed the North Korean launches.

For decades, North Korea’s leadership has faced international criticism for prioritizing spending on its military and nuclear weapons program instead of providing for the population — even during times of famine.

Pyongyang considers its military development necessary for security in the face of what it describes as American aggression. North Korea is under multiple sets of punishing sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.

Hopes for a thaw after meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump were dented as they failed to produce any substantial progress on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang has since continued to refine its military capabilities, analysts say.

With the latest launch Pyongyang “continues an international strategy of trying to normalize its missile tests”, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.

Draconian Restrictions

Shortly before the launch, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA reported that the rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would convene on April 10.

The event would involve gathering nearly 700 officials in one place, analysts said. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“North Korea would not risk holding such a large-scale national political event if the regime was not confident about preventing or containing the spread of the virus,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at specialist website NK News, told AFP.

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in offering “comfort” as Seoul battled what was the worst outbreak of the virus outside China at the time.

South Korea has since largely brought the contagion under control.

KCNA said Saturday Kim oversaw an “artillery fire competition” among combined units of the army on Friday, releasing photos of him along with military officers — none of them wearing face masks.

But despite North Korea’s decision to go ahead with its parliament session, Pyongyang’s “draconian restrictions on movement, mask-wearing propaganda, public punishment of ‘corrupt’ elites violating quarantine efforts, and rush to build medical facilities suggest COVID-19 has penetrated the country,” Ewha University’s Easley said.

“Pyongyang is likely struggling with a coronavirus crisis on a national scale.”

With fears swirling about an outbreak in North Korea, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights Tomas Ojea Quintana earlier this month called for Pyongyang to provide access to outside medical experts and humanitarian assistance.

The UN Security Council said last month that it would make humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on North Korea to help it fight the coronavirus.

In this March 20, 2020, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervises an artillery firing competition between army units in the country’s west in North Korea. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

This article was written by Claire Lee from Agence France Presse and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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N. Korean defectors eye politics as weapon to make voice heard

SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) — Back in North Korea, Ji Seong-ho saw elections as nothing more than a formality, because even a vote against the ruling Workers’ Party-picked candidates, let alone criticism of the government, could land voters in prison.

Running for office was an unthinkable privilege reserved for elites and well-connected people.

That’s why, after coming to South Korea, Ji, known for his surprise appearance at U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018, was stunned to see candidates feverishly campaigning and people passionately debating policy and freely criticizing their president.

After more than 10 years of living in South Korea, Ji is now planning to run in the April 15 general elections for a National Assembly seat, with the goal of helping North Korean defectors and people still suffering in the country he escaped from.

“If elected, I hope to contribute to enacting laws that help improve human rights situations in North Korea and to draw up policies to support North Korean defectors, like me,” he said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector-turned-human rights activist, in his office in southwest Seoul (Yonhap)

Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector-turned-human rights activist, in his office in southwest Seoul (Yonhap)

Yonhap News

By: Koh Byung-joon


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US military base schools in South Korea will tentatively reopen April 13 amid coronavirus crisis

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SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Defense Department schools in South Korea will tentatively reopen on April 13, after safety measures were put in place to protect students from coronavirus, officials said Friday.

The announcement underscored a growing sense of cautious optimism in South Korea, where the pace of confirmed infections has slowed in contrast to the United States, Italy and other countries that have seen sharp increases.

The eight schools on Camp Humphreys, Army Garrison Daegu and Osan Air Base closed and began online classes in late February to avoid close contact for students and staff. The respiratory virus, which first appeared late last year in China, surfaced in South Korea in the southeastern city of Daegu and spread nationwide.

Jeff Arrington, the regional superintendent for the Department of Defense Education Activity, said the agency had worked with the military to develop mitigation measures that will keep the children safe even as the coronavirus threat remains.

“The tentative reopen date is 13 April following spring break with all schools,” he said during a Facebook live update with the Camp Humphreys garrison command team.

“We feel like we have the measures in place now, but we’ve got to do the preparation,” he said, adding that the schools will reopen “assuming that nothing else changes.”

Officials stressed the need to maintain caution as the coronavirus risk remains high but expressed confidence in protective measures that have been established for the reopening.

Those include deploying soldiers to take temperatures and screen students for signs of the virus prior to boarding school buses or entering buildings.

Other guidelines include placing hand sanitizer stations in classrooms, disinfecting classrooms, hallways and locker exteriors, and developing a protocol for handling those who display coronavirus symptoms.

Soldiers already have rehearsed the new procedures and have undergone background checks since they will be around children, garrison commander Col. Michael Tremblay said.

Day care facilities will likely open beforehand in preparation for the school reopening, Tremblay said but added that no date has been set.

South Korea had one of the worst outbreaks of the virus, but the daily counts have dropped below 100 this week even as the pneumonia-like disease spreads rapidly in the United States and other countries.

Many parents who have struggled to fill the role of teacher while coping with children home all day were thrilled with the news, although some worried that it’s still too soon as restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus remain in place.

“That’s great! Gives everybody more time and makes sense to not open just to close again for spring break,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Katrina Edwards, who has a fifth grader attending school on Osan Air Base.

Arrington said the situation remained fluid as other school districts around the world now face closure because of the virus. DODEA in Japan announced Thursday its schools would close Monday until April 13.

“Korea was kind of the first to lead in taking the safety measures to put in place for our students; a lot of other schools are now coming on-line with it,” he said. “So initially it was just about Korea and what we need to do for Korea, now it’s everybody.”

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 87 new cases on Friday, raising the total to 8,652 with 94 deaths. It was the fifth day that numbers fell below 100, although there was a slight uptick the day before.

Health authorities continued to express concern about cluster infections and urged people to maintain precautions such as social distancing and avoiding crowded places.

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Delayed by sanctions, first medical aid trickles into North Korea

The first shipments of international medical aid are due to arrive at North Korea’s borders this week to shore up its defenses against the coronavirus, but strict border controls could mean the stream of supplies remains a trickle.

Some aid organizations had to get emergency sanction exemptions from the United Nations to clear the way for the shipments and are now navigating North Korea’s border controls imposed in a bid to shut out the virus.

North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases of the virus, though a top U.S. military official said last week he is “fairly certain” there were infections in North Korea.

North Korea is especially vulnerable to an outbreak as its health system lacks resources, in part because of international sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons programs, ,say aid organizations.

NBC News


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S. Korea, U.S. extend defense cost-sharing talks in LA

SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) — South Korea and the United States have decided to extend their latest defense cost-sharing talks in Los Angeles for another day, the foreign ministry said Thursday, after they wrapped up the second day of hard bargaining.

The extension came as Seoul and Washington hankered for an early deal to share the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops here, amid concerns that Korean employees in the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) could be furloughed next month absent a scheme to fund their wages.

It remains unclear whether the extension bodes well or ill for the negotiations, as Seoul officials did not go into detail about any developments in the seventh round of the talks that were initially set to run for two days until Wednesday.

During the talks, Seoul’s top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, thrashed out their differences on how much Seoul should pay for the upkeep of the USFK under the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA).

Before the talks, Seoul’s negotiation team hoped to engage in separate negotiations for an arrangement to first address the Korean employees’ wage issue in case of a failure to reach a comprehensive SMA.

But the U.S. State Department balked, telling media that it could distract from “expeditiously concluding a mutually acceptable and comprehensive SMA that addresses all facets of the agreement.”

Since last September, the two countries have held six rounds of SMA talks, including the last in Washington in January. But they failed to bridge differences over how much Seoul should shoulder this year and beyond and what should be covered by the SMA.

The U.S. has revised downward its initial demand for a fivefold increase of Seoul’s financial contribution to the USFK to some $5 billion. But it is known to currently call for about $4 billion, with Seoul insisting on an increase of about 10 percent.

Yonhap News

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U.S. commander sees no unusual activity inside N. Korea’s missile forces

WASHINGTON, March 17 (Yonhap) — The United States has detected no unusual activity inside North Korea’s missile forces since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday.

In a telephone briefing with reporters, Adm. Charles Richard was asked about the missile forces of Iran and North Korea and what impact the virus has had on them.

“That is something that we look at every single day for every single potential threat to this nation,” he replied. “To date, we have not seen anything beyond what I would describe as normal or day-to-day operations by anyone.”

North Korea has yet to report a single case of COVID-19, but it is sandwiched between China, where the disease emerged in December, and South Korea, which has seen more than 8,000 infections.

Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told reporters Friday that “we’re fairly certain” North Korea has cases.

He also said the North’s armed forces was on lockdown for about 30 days and only recently resumed routine training.

At one point, the regime had not flown a plane for 24 days but is now back to flying training sorties, he said.

This AP file photo shows the Pentagon in Washington. (Yonhap)

This AP file photo shows the Pentagon in Washington. (Yonhap)

Yonhap News  |  By Lee Haye-ah

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Commentary – What if North Korea Fired a Missile and Nobody Cared? Coronavirus Made that Happen.

For once, we just do not have the time or attention to lavish on Pyongyang’s latest attention-seeking outburst. What a relief.

The National Interest · by Robert E. Kelly

A few days ago, North Korea launched several projectiles into the waters between it and Japan. Did you know this? Unless you are a professional North Korea watcher, from that small community of journalism, government, and academia that watches Pyongyang closely, you probably did not know. And you probably did not really care either, as you are worried about more important things like dealing with the coronavirus.

I note all this to illustrate the limits of North Korean antics. Often when North Korea engages in these sorts of launches, I am asked if these are signals or otherwise efforts to communicate with the South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese. Perhaps they are, but at the most basic level they most probably reminders that North Korea is still here and still demands attention at a time when events overtake it. North Korea is basically a third world banana republic, plus a massive military.

Occasionally, more serious issues like coronavirus act to remind us of that and put North Korea into a more proper, lower-ranking of our priorities.

North Korean provocations like this usually have several causes:

First, at the most basic level, the North may feel an actual empirical need to test the weapons it develops. All states do this of course, and North Korea does have a huge military budget. It develops a lot of weapons. It is on a permanent war-footing. (This likely helps explain to its people why the country’s development is so stunted.) So maybe Pyongyang really does need to put its many new weapons through their paces.

But this explanation feels thin, as the North sometimes tests and sometimes not. It often attaches outlandish rhetoric to tests and frequently schedules them at times which look an awful lot like signaling – usually displeasure at something done by South Korea. And the world is especially attentive to Pyongyang’s missile launches, which are technically banned by the United Nations (not that that has ever stopped the North). So usually we assume a deeper meaning.

Second, the tests – or lack of – may signal displeasure with the rest of the world. The most obvious case for signaling now is the stalled denuclearization talks initiated by the administrations of South Korean President Moon Jae In and American President Donald Trump. Both leaders variously promised a deal or some other sort of breakthrough with the North. That has not been forthcoming. Trump particularly seems to have pulled away from the talks, content with the photographs and imagery of the meetings and disinterested in the actual substance. Trump will use the imagery for re-election purposes and is unlikely to meet Kim Jong Un again unless Kim offers more concrete concessions.

Given this, the occasional missile tests in the years since the first summit in Singapore of Trump and Kim are likely to pressure Trump to make concessions. Certainly, the Moon government is sensitive to North Korean shenanigans. Moon’s signature presidential initiative is his outreach to the North, and with South Korean legislative elections coming up next month, Moon is uniquely vulnerable to North Korean pressure.

Third, these tests serve to remind us simply that North Korea is here and cannot be ignored. As Soo Kim of the Rand Corporation said in a radio interview on the launches with me this week, it is a ‘forget-me-not’ card. North Korea, like all states, is sensitive to the perception of disdain or disinterest. Prestige is important. This is all the more central given the North’s unique political position as a direct competitor state to South Korea.

The two Koreas are legitimacy competitors. Both claim to rule the entire peninsula. Both claim to speak for the Korean people. Both claim to be a superior system offering a better outcome to the nation. Both manipulate the language of nationalism against each other. Given all this, they are existential threats to each other.

For North Korea, this competition has gone decidedly and obviously badly. Just as East Germany slowly lost a similar competition with West Germany during the Cold War, so has North Korea. Indeed, North Korea is worse than East Germany ever was. As with the East, the North could not keep its people inside its own country if it did not lock them in. By any objective measure – gross domestic product, public health, sanitation, social service provision, infrastructure, and so on – North Korea has lost the inter-Korean race. In the German case, this was fatal to the East. When Eastern citizens were finally allowed to vote, they decisively voted for unification on Western-terms. Less than a year later, East Germany was gone.

North Korea vigorously resists this fate. It may be the failed totalitarian appendage of the real Korea, but it will never admit this. It will insist on its claim to be an equal Korean state enjoying a parallel legitimacy. Nuclear weapons back up this claim. North Korea as a nuclear weapons state bolsters its claim to be the real Korea, or at least a parallel, also legitimate Korean state which does not deserve to be absorbed.

But nukes are extreme. A more practical way to remind us all that North Korea is here and cannot just be written off as the failed Korea is drawing attention to itself regularly. The endless missile tests and other provocations serve this purpose. They are tantrums, demands from the scary uncle in the attic that we pay attention to it so that it not be forgotten as a cul-de-sac of Korean history.

And here then, is the clarifying moment of corona in Korean geopolitics: for once, we do not care. For once, we just do not have the time or attention to lavish on Pyongyang’s latest attention-seeking outburst. What a relief.

Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.
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