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Why is North Korea firing missiles while the rest of the world is fighting coronavirus?

As the world fights the coronavirus, North Korea is having its busiest period of missile testing on record, while maintaining it has the local epidemic situation under control.

ABC News  |  By Christina Zhou

A man wearing a face mask walks past a TV screen airing reports about North Korea's firing of missiles.

Key points:

  • North Korea has reportedly launched 10 missiles since March 2
  • Experts believe Kim Jong-un is taking advantage of the COVID-19 distraction
  • The hermit kingdom is among 15 countries that still haven’t reported any coronavirus cases

Pyongyang yesterday launched what is believed to be multiple short-range cruise missiles into the sea between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The test followed nine missile launches across four separate events in March — the highest number of launches in a single month on record.

North Korea is also among 15 countries around the globe that still claims to be untouched by COVID-19, which has now killed about 120,000 people and infected some 1.9 million, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

Despite this, North Korea’s ruling party says the pandemic has created obstacles for its “economic construction” efforts, and has called for stronger coronavirus measures at a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Saturday.

But experts have expressed concerns that the country’s health system isn’t equipped to fight an outbreak after decades of isolation and international sanctions, and also remain sceptical of its coronavirus-free status.

So why is North Korea ramping up its missile testing now? Shouldn’t it be focusing its efforts on keeping the pandemic at bay? And what happened to the Christmas present North Korean leader Kim Jong-un promised US President Donald Trump?

Why is North Korea testing missiles now?

Kim Jong-un watches and his comrades look up into the sky.

The latest spate of North Korean missile launches started on March 2, which also marked the first since November 2019.

Ankit Panda, author of Kim Jong-un And The Bomb, noted the recent missiles launched were mostly KN-25 close-range ballistic missiles and not — at least according to state media — intended for “an explicit nuclear role”.

After the March 2 tests, several European countries including France, Germany and the United Kingdom condemned Pyongyang for undermining regional and international peace and violating UN Security Council resolutions.

A missile launches into the air, leaving behind red plumes of smoke.

South Korea’s military also condemned the military demonstrations on March 21 as “very inappropriate”, especially as the world was struggling to cope with the pandemic.

“With the exception of the KN-24 launch [on March 21], the KN-25 system appears to be undergoing a period of rapid operational testing as opposed to developmental testing,” Mr Panda recently wrote.

“North Korea, in other words, is getting ground crews used to operating these systems through events that might be described as military exercises rather than ‘tests.'”

However, North Korea watchers believe the surge of missile activity is a calculated move by Mr Kim to deliver both a domestic and an international message.

Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University, told the ABC the timing was “definitely intentional” because every country including the US, China, South Korea and Japan were busy combating the coronavirus and “barely have time to deal with any major foreign policy problems”.

“So North Korea can easily escape any coordinated international condemnation or sanctions now,” he said.

“Domestically, it hopes to continue to boost nationalism and demonstrate Kim’s strong leadership in this difficult time.

“Internationally, it wants to attest that North Korea has no ‘confirmed’ coronavirus cases and its military is willing and capable of defending the nation as the world enters a period of greater uncertainty.”

What else is Kim Jong-un hoping to achieve?

Korea expert Jean H Lee told a North Korea briefing organised by the US think tank Wilson Centre earlier this week the unfolding of the coronavirus crisis globally came at a time of “incredible political uncertainty” in Pyongyang.

After a year of failed denuclearisation talks, Mr Kim had warned Mr Trump that he had until December 31 to deliver a breakthrough proposal to restart negotiations. But the date came and went, and negotiations remain at a standstill.

“To put things into context, remember that Kim Jong-un had put so much into his relationship with President Trump, and as we know, it did not yield the deal that he had hoped for in Hanoi in February 2019,” said the former Pyongyang AP bureau chief.

Ms Lee said Mr Kim had been trying to figure out how to gain the upper-hand in his negotiations with the US and how he was going to regain public confidence at home.

She said she believed Mr Kim wanted to go back to the negotiations, eventually, but with a “much stronger” hand than he had in Hanoi.

“He wants to have a little bit of that isolation study to carry out some testing and make some improvements, so that when he gets back to that negotiating table, he’s in a stronger position,” she said.

A missiles being launched at night time.

Ms Lee said the failure of negotiations with Mr Trump also meant the North Korean leader had to come up with a way to show his people that he was on top.

At the end of a year of numerous rocket launches and missile tests in 2019, Mr Kim promised the US a cryptic “Christmas gift”, which Mr Trump joked could be “a beautiful vase”.

But many US officials speculated at the time the “gift” could be a nuclear weapons test or the resumption of long-range missile launches.

Professor Zhu said the gift could be interpreted in several different ways.

“It could be … a real gift of peace [without further missile and nuclear testings] or a ‘hot potato’ gift for Trump,” he said.

“Military experts point out that currently North Korean missiles including ICBMs (Intercontinental ballistic missiles) use the liquid-fuelled system, which can only be fuelled before flight.

“However, recently-tested missiles apparently use solid-fuelled system, which, if successful, will significantly improve North Korea’s missile and nuclear technologies, and North Korea will pose a greater threat since there will be no warnings when it may launch a missile.

“This is a kind of ‘gift’ that Trump does not really want.”

Why would North Korea lie about being coronavirus-free?

North Korea shares its borders with Asia’s two most infected nations: China, which had more than 83,000 confirmed cases and some 3,350 deaths, and South Korea, with some 10,500 cases and more than 220 deaths as of Tuesday evening.

North Korea was among the first countries to close its borders to all foreign tourists in January, just weeks after the mysterious virus was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in late December.

A WHO representative to North Korea said last week the country was still testing for coronavirus and had more than 500 people in quarantine, but still had no confirmed cases yet.

Pedestrians wear face masks on the street.

Widespread censorship in the hermit kingdom could conceal reports of an outbreak, but even if COVID-19 was spreading there, experts say Pyongyang itself may not know the extent of the infection or death.

“It’s a guessing game regarding the pandemic situation inside North Korea,” Professor Zhu said.

“Even the North Korean Government probably does not know how many cases there are in North Korea.

“The fact that they’ve requested assistance from other countries and many people are wearing masks in public suggests that the virus is spreading.

“North Korea’s public health system is very fragile and may not be equipped to deal with such a pandemic.”

As the former Pyongyang AP bureau chief, Ms Lee learned first-hand about the limited healthcare in North Korea.

She was last in the country in 2017 and has visited many health facilities over the years from top hospitals in Pyongyang to local clinics that were run by women.

“I still remember one clinic where the doctor told me they didn’t even have the medicine to stop diarrhea, and that diarrhea was the main cause of death in her community,” she said.

“And we can extrapolate and imagine how difficult it would be for them to cope with an epidemic like COVID-19.”

While one of the key health measures being promoted around the globe is to wash hands in soap and water, Ms Lee said many healthcare facilities didn’t have soap or even running water.

But Pyongyang — which is subject to multiple international sanctions over its nuclear and missiles testing programme — has sought coronavirus-related aid.

Russia has provided 1,500 test kits to North Korea at its request in February, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Professor Zhu said while there had been no public report about Chinese aid yet, he would not be surprised if China had already sent medical supplies to North Korea.

“Very likely, the coronavirus is spreading on a limited scale in North Korea, but the North Korean Government does not want to create a public panic by openly acknowledging it,” he said.

“The drastic measures it has taken so far (such as being the first to shut borders with China in late January and quarantining all diplomats), the requests for aid, and the recent party congress all suggest that the North Korean Government is taking this very seriously and is determined to contain the virus before it breaks out across the country.”



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S. Korean coronavirus test kit shipment to leave for U.S. Wednesday

Yonhap News   |   By Kim Seung-yeon

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) — A shipment of South Korean-made coronavirus test kits will depart for the United States early Wednesday, officials said, under arrangements made after U.S. President Donald Trump asked for medical supplies during a phone call with President Moon Jae-in last month.


Two South Korean test kit makers have signed contracts with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to export their diagnostic equipment after they won pre-emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


The interim FDA approval came after Trump requested Seoul’s help in securing medical equipment during the phone call with Moon late last month. South Korea has earned global recognition for its anti-virus efforts through advanced testing and quarantine systems.


The test kits, enough to run as many as 600,000 tests for the coronavirus, had originally been scheduled to depart on a U.S. cargo flight late Tuesday, but shipment was rescheduled for early Wednesday, a foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity without specifying reasons.


Another company that has also won the preliminary FDA approval for its test kits has completed its delivery of the goods, capable of conducting as many as 150,000 tests, to its U.S.-based agency.


The U.S. has expressed appreciation for Korea’s supply of the COVID-19 testing kits.


“We are grateful to our Republic of Korea partners for assisting the United States in procuring COVID-19 tests, and for its support to the people of the United States,” a senior U.S. goverment official told Yonhap News Agency.


Later in the day, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris tweeted a similar message, along with a picture of a box of the test kits being loaded for delivery at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul.


“#COVID19 test kits were just loaded at Incheon airport & are bound for the U.S. The #USROKAlliance is ironclad and we’re grateful to @mofa_kr for helping make this purchase by @fema possible. #WeAreInThisTogether.”


More local test kit producers are expected to gain approval, given the high demand for the diagnostic devices amid the urgent situation in the U.S., now the country with the highest infection caseload of over 580,000.


About a dozen Korean test kit makers have applied for interim FDA approval, a Seoul official said earlier.


This photo, captured from U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris' Twitter account, shows a box of South Korean-made COVID-19 test kits being loaded for a U.S.-bound delivery at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on April 14, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

This photo, captured from U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris’ Twitter account, shows a box of South Korean-made COVID-19 test kits being loaded for a U.S.-bound delivery at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on April 14, 2020. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)




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Covid-19 Provides Perfect Cover For Kim

Amid the global pandemic, North Korea unleashes multiple missile test launches

Asia Times  |   By ANDREW SALMON

At a time when the world’s attention is glued to the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea test-fired its latest barrage of missiles early Tuesday morning.

The test is believed to have been of short-range, anti-ship missiles, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, which closely monitor North Korean military activities.

The projectiles were fired from the east coast and splashed approximately 150 kilometers east of the peninsula, in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea. The drills continued for about 40 minutes, the JCS said.

It was the fifth test this year. Four separate tests of various missile systems were conducted last month.

Tuesday’s tests, of cruise missiles – which fly on flat trajectories – are not sanctioned by UN Security Council resolutions. However, for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his military, which is banned from tests which include ballistic missile technology by the UNSC, there has, perhaps, never been a finer time to carry out weapons tests.

Pyongyang can conduct a range of activities that would, in more normal times, generate considerable noise in the global diplomatic and political spaces, but which a distracted world now has little interest in, and which are unlikely to draw anything more than cursory condemnation.

And North Korea is not the only player making regional moves under cover of Covid-19.

Political Aims

Tuesday’s test firings may have been statements as they were fired one day before South Korea goes to the polls in legislative elections. Wednesday is also the birthday of North Korea’s “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un and the nation’s most revered figure.

Yet while North Korean missile tests often have political aims – such as the famous Hwasong ICBM test launched on July 4, US Independence Day – the country’s military, like those in other nations, also needs to test weaponry periodically for tactical and technical reasons unconnected to wider global political considerations.

“You have to test systems that are new to bring them online and certify them as operational; these are engineering steps anyone has to go through,” Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert on strategy at Troy University, told Asia Times. “And once systems are deployed, their units have to train with them.”

Given the global distraction provided by the ongoing pandemic, and the unprecedented response to it in Western Europe and North Korea, the timing for weapons tests may well be ideal.

In March, North Korea conducted four separate tests of varied missiles. The last, of a super-large Multiple Launch Rocket System, took place on the 29th.

March also marked the height of the Covid-10 outbreak in South Korea. That same month, the virus emerged as a major threat to both Western Europe and the United States.

“There are different aspects to North Korean weapons tests and there is a range of interpretations,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean watcher at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “But 70% of their intention [at present] is probably technical. The pandemic is great for North Korea.”

Pinkston, too, warned against viewing weapons tests as purely political events.

“Of course, there is the political aspect, but many people only focus on that – “They’re only doing it because of us,’” Pinkston said. “But units that use weapons systems have to train with them – the targeting, the command and control, the communications, the mobility.”

With US President Donald Trump deep in crisis mode as he grapples with the world’s largest Covid-19 outbreak – a black swan that could potentially cost him the presidential election in November – Pyongyang is freer than usual to flex its muscles.

While doing so, it may be reasonably confident that its actions will generate neither front-page news coverage nor meaningful or concerted diplomatic reactions from either Washington or from around the world.

Calibrated Flexing

Kim’s actions appear well calibrated. All of this year’s tests so far have been of tactical, theater weapons rather than strategic weapons that would threaten the US.

North Korea continues to refrain from carrying out headline tests – such as atomic detonations, long-range ballistic missiles or possibly the launch of a satellite using dual-use booster technologies.

Some had feared and expected such tests in 2020 following bellicose statements from Pyongyang at the outset of the year.

While light had unexpectedly dawned upon North Korea-US relations in 2018 thanks to an unprecedented, though largely inconclusive leaders’ summit in Singapore, interactions have since returned to their customary frosty state.

A second leaders’ summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019 failed to advance the Singapore agenda – or, indeed, to improve or upgrade bilateral relations in any way.

The test of a strategic device would likely raise the ire of Trump, who likes to boast of his amicable relationship with Kim, and who uses North Korea’s reluctance to test strategic weapons as proof of his diplomatic nous.

“Sure, it is a good time to test, but I also sense that they are not going all the way, they are remaining below the threshold that Trump has established,” Go said. “They are operating under that ceiling and abiding by the kind of understanding that, if North Korea does not make too much noise, then the US is going to turn a blind eye.”

US Distracted

Kim may not be the only leader busting moves in the region in the time of Covid-19 when Western powers are seriously distracted. With US carrier battle groups under siege from Covid-10, the apparently unscathed Chinese People’s Liberation Army is deploying and posturing in the strategic South China Sea.

A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk after being rammed by a PLA Navy vessel early this month in disputed waters and a PLA Navy carrier battle group is now conducting maneuvers in the South China Sea, near Taiwan,

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military appears to be expanding its powers and cracking down on opposition groups.

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North Korea Fires Missiles as South’s Elections Loom

The tests of short-range missiles came a day before South Korea holds parliamentary elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.

An undated picture released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Sunday showed Kim Jong-un inspecting a military plane group.
Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea ​fired several short-range missiles off its east coast on Tuesday, a day before South Korea is scheduled to hold elections for its 300-seat Parliament.

The projectiles, launched from the town of Munchon, were believed to be cruise missiles, the South Korean military said in a statement.

Under a series of United Nations resolutions, North Korea is banned from testing ballistic ​ — but not cruise ​ — ​missiles. Thus, its launchings on Tuesday​ were considered less provocative than its recent tests of ballistic missiles.

But South Koreans remain sensitive to any move by the North to raise tensions during an election time for fear it might sway how voters cast their ballots.

South Korea has decided to go ahead with voting on Wednesday even though many other countries, including ​Britain​ and France, have postponed elections because of the coronavirus epidemic.

​S​outh Korea is not in lockdown, and its governing Democratic Party is hoping ​that the country’s successful efforts to contain the virus early​ will help its candidates on Wednesday, bolstering President Moon Jae-in’s grip on power.

Voters are being required to wear masks and use sanitizer and plastic gloves before casting their ballots. Those under self-quarantine will be allowed to leave their ​homes with government escorts to vote after ​6 p.m. Wednesday, when the balloting ​for the general public ends.

Nearly 27 percent of the country’s 44 million eligible voters already cast their ballots on Friday and Saturday in advance voting to avoid the crowds on Wednesday.

North Korea​ carried out no weapons tests in 2018​, when its leader, Kim​ Jong-un, was ​en​gaged in diplomacy with​ ​President Trump. But it ​resumed​​ ​short-range missile​ launches last May, three months after Mr. Kim’s second summit with Mr. Trump, held in Vietnam, collapsed over differences on how to denuclearize North Korea and when to ease American-led​ international sanctions.

North Korea began large-scale live-fire military training ​last month as the ​coronavirus pandemic was raging in much of the world, including​ in neighboring China and South Korea. It has since conducted f​ive weapons tests that involved short-range missiles or rockets​, including the one on Tuesday​.

North Korea has claimed it has no coronavirus cases, but Mr. Kim convened the Political Bureau of his ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday, calling for stricter enforcement of measures against the epidemic. When the North’s rubber-stamp parliament​, the Supreme People’s Assembly, met on Sunday, it made the same vow. It also increased the budgets for defense and public health.


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U.S. should consider 1-year, interim defense deal with S. Korea: expert

Yonhap  |  By Lee Haye-ah

WASHINGTON, April 9 (Yonhap) — The United States should consider a one-year, interim agreement with South Korea on sharing defense costs in consideration of Seoul’s contributions to joint efforts, including the fight against COVID-19, a U.S. expert said Thursday.

In a virtual roundtable with Korean reporters, Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believes President Donald Trump could approve such a deal despite his previous insistence on getting South Koreans to pay significantly more for the stationing of 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

This file photo shows Victor Cha, Korea expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Yonhap)

This file photo shows Victor Cha, Korea expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Yonhap)

“This is definitely a case where it’s pretty clear that negotiators can negotiate all they want, but in the end, only one person’s view matters, and that that is Trump,” Cha said.

“But if what they’re presenting to him is something along the lines of, South Koreans are sending us masks for COVID, they’re in the Gulf of Aden, they’re doing all this other stuff, let’s just put a pause on this — a one-year interim agreement where Koreans have increased a certain percentage — and let’s revisit this after the election. It’s possible, given all that’s going on in terms of COVID and wanting to focus on the election, that he might just say yes to something like that,” he said, referring to the U.S. presidential election in November.

Initially, Trump reportedly demanded a near fivefold increase in Seoul’s financial contributions to US$5 billion from $870 million under last year’s one-year Special Measures Agreement, which lapsed at the end of December.

The two sides have held seven rounds of negotiations since September to try to renew the SMA, which has typically covered a multi-year period, but have failed to bridge their gaps.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reportedly backed down from its initial demand.

“I think that’d be a real victory for the alliance if they could get some sort of one-year interim agreement,” Cha said. “We should all be happy with that, and then just wait for next year.”

Last week, U.S. Forces Korea placed thousands of South Korean employees on unpaid leave, citing the absence of a new agreement to cover their salaries.

South Korean media also reported that a tentative deal had been reached and could be announced as early as April 1, but that didn’t materialize.

U.S. officials have insisted that negotiations are ongoing to ensure an equitable and mutually beneficial deal for both sides.

Both South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo have addressed the issue in recent phone calls with their U.S. counterparts, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.

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Exclusive: Inside Trump’s standoff with South Korea over defense costs


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New cases dip below 30 again, social distancing still urged

SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) — South Korea on Monday saw its daily number of coronavirus infections fall below 30 again, but health authorities said that the country should not let its guard down against the pandemic, urging people to keep up social distancing.

The 25 new cases, detected Sunday and down from 32 a day ago, brought the nation’s total infections to 10,537, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

It is the second time since late February that the country’s new virus infections have fallen below 30 after it reported 27 new cases Friday.

Monday’s new virus cases marked a sharp drop from the Feb. 29 peak of 909 new cases, according to the KCDC. The country’s daily number of new virus cases has been below 50 in the last five days.

Medical workers in protective suits begin work at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on April, 13, 2020. (Yonhap)

Medical workers in protective suits begin work at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on April, 13, 2020. (Yonhap)

But health authorities remain on high alert over cluster infections at churches and hospitals, as well as new cases coming from overseas.

Of the newly reported cases, 16 cases were from overseas.

“If we ease our social distancing campaign, we may face a result that we cannot handle,” Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said. “It’s true that we are seeing a slowdown in the spread of the novel coronavirus, but this does not mean that the virus has been eradicated.”

The nation’s death toll from the new coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, rose by three to 217, according to the KCDC.

The number of patients released from quarantine after making full recoveries reached 7,447, up 79 from a day earlier.

The southeastern city of Daegu, the nation’s worst virus-hit region, added three new cases. Its surrounding North Gyeongsang Province reported four new cases.

Other major provinces and cities also reported infections, with Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province adding eight and three new cases, respectively.

The country also detected six new cases coming from overseas at border checkpoints. The total number of imported cases is now at 929.

Since April 1, South Korea has enforced mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all travelers coming from overseas to better contain imported cases.

Starting Monday, all arrivals from the United States have to be tested for COVID-19. Previously, only those with symptoms had undergone tests.

Also from Monday, the government began suspending visa-free entry and visa waiver programs for some 90 countries imposing entry bans on South Koreans so that it can better curb the coronavirus inflow from abroad.

Seeking to reduce the daily number of new infections to below 50, South Korea has extended strict guidelines on social distancing by two weeks to Sunday.

Health authorities said they have inspected 41,476 entertainment facilities, including nightclubs and bars, in the last five days and issued administrative orders for 4,242 facilities that breached quarantine rules.

South Korea has vowed to show no leniency toward those who breach quarantine rules. Violators could face up to one year in jail or a fine of up to 10 million won (US$8,200), and they will be asked to wear electronic wristbands for the rest of their quarantine period. Foreigners could be deported if they break quarantine rules.


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U.S. envoy, USFK chief keep apart during lunch to practice social distancing

SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) — U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said Thursday he had lunch with U.S. Forces Korea chief Gen. Robert Abrams, but they kept a distance from each other as part of efforts to fight the new coronavirus.

The ambassador tweeted a photo of him having lunch at one end of a long table at his residence in Seoul, with the commander sitting at the other end, to show they were joining the campaign to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“Great lunch with Gen. Abrams @DogFaceSoldier today. We are practicing good #SocialDistancing,” he wrote.

In recent weeks, South Korea has stepped up social distancing measures. On Thursday, the country reported 39 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total caseload to 10,423, with 204 deaths.

U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris poses with U.S. Forces Korea chief Gen. Robert Abrams during lunch at his residence in Seoul on April 9, 2020 in this photo captured from the ambassador's twitter account. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris poses with U.S. Forces Korea chief Gen. Robert Abrams during lunch at his residence in Seoul on April 9, 2020 in this photo captured from the ambassador’s twitter account.  (Yonhap)

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N.K. leader supervises mortar firing drill ahead of major parliamentary meeting

Yonhap News  |  By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, April 10 (Yonhap) — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has overseen a mortar firing drill, state media reported Friday, ahead of a key meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature to be watched closely for any message to the United States.

Kim’s attendance in the exercise suggests that a politburo or a plenary meeting of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, which used to be held on the eve of a Supreme People’s Assembly session, did not take place, and therefore, Friday’s SPA meeting may not lead to significant decisions.

The official Korean Central News Agency said that Kim “guided the drill of mortar sub-units” of the Korean People’s Army “aimed at learning about the power of light guns and heavy weapons” and “judging and estimating the firepower combat abilities of mortar-men.”

He expressed “great satisfaction” over the drill and repeatedly spoke highly of “the amazing marksmanship of the mortar companies of each army corps,” the KCNA said.

The KCNA did not specify where and when the drill was held, but Kim’s activity is usually reported a day after it happens. It marked the first time in about three weeks that Kim has supervised a military event since he watched a weapons test on March 21.

North Korea has carried out a series of weapons tests and artillery firing exercises this year after a monthslong hiatus. In March alone, the country conducted four major weapons tests, including the firing of short-range projectiles late in the month.

Friday’s SPA session is expected to center on economic and domestic issues amid the ongoing fight against the new coronavirus and concerns over the fallout from the pandemic.

North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, generating speculation that it might be hushing up an outbreak. The country remains on high alert, saying anti-virus efforts are a “political issue” that will determine its fate.

The parliamentary meeting also draws keen attention as Pyongyang could send a message to the United States amid a stalemate in denuclearization talks, which have stalled since a no-deal summit in Hanoi between North Korean leader Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in February last year.

This photo captured from the website of the Korean Central News Agency on April 10, 2020, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) guiding a motar drill. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

This photo captured from the website of the Korean Central News Agency on April 10, 2020, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) guiding a motar drill. (Yonhap)


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America Must Lead on Sanctions Relief for Coronavirus-Stricken North Korea

The National Interest  |  By Amber Jamil

As international systems battle the blistering spread of COVID-19, North Korea’s public health and economic fragility increases its humanitarian vulnerability. Despite an official statement from the foreign ministry on March 20 that North Korea is a “clean country,” multiple unofficial sources—as well as statements from UN Command and U.S. Forces Korea (UNC/USFK) commander General Abe Abrams—suggest otherwise. South Korea’s Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun noted North Korea’s coronavirus situation is “probably not good,” while U.S. President Trump asserted that North Korea “is going through something.”

Land, sea and air border crossings to the hermit kingdom have closed as of late February. A senior official of the Ministry of Public Health stated the intent to maintain closed borders until diagnosis and treatment capabilities are developed.

According to state media, 10,000 North Korean citizens have been placed into isolation and currently roughly 2,300 are under quarantine as of this week. 7,000 North Koreans returning from overseas are subject to a forty-day isolation followed by an additional thirty-day medical observation period. Also, foreign visitors previously in the county are subject to thirty-day.

North Korea has one of the world’s least-prepared public health systems for dealing with an infectious disease outbreak. Based on the joint Johns Hopkins Global Health Security and Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2019 Global Health Index, North Korea ranks 193 in preparedness against outbreaks compared to South Korea, which ranks 9th. The nation has limited diagnostic capability and hospitals lack disinfectant and anesthesia. After a collapse in the nineties of the medical system due to economic stress, Kim has attempted to modernize their health systems. However, hospitals and infrastructures improvements are limited to major cities and there is a lack of trust by the public.

The Impact of Sanctions

Additionally, sanctions have hampered North Korea’s response to COVID-19. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted sanctions “impeded” North Korea’s ability to battle COVID-19. On March 24, she stated, “At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended.” She stressed the global implications, noting, “In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.”

Limited sanction relief by the UN 1718 Sanctions Committee is underway as a fast track response to the pandemic. On March 12, the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development’s Swiss Humanitarian Aid was granted an exemption to bypass sanctions to aid North Korea in “ongoing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” The aid organization is granted permission to send disinfection kits and 2,000 sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical work.

Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) will provide PPE and lab reagents and support the development of hygiene-related information campaigns. North Korea is cooperating with UNICEF to obtain additional PPE and Russia offered 1,500 rapid test kits. Furthermore, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is to send test kits, gloves, masks and medical gowns and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also provided an exemption for protective and diagnostic equipment.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced at the beginning of April the intent to allow a private aid organization to ship hand sanitizers to North Korea. South Korea’s $3 million contribution to the WHO’s coronavirus response will also help North Korea.

U.S.-North Korean Relations

The U.S. State Department offered assistance and noted deep concern about the “vulnerability” of the North Korean population to COVID-19. President Trump also wrote to Kim Jong-un to express a willingness to engage. The U.S. offer has not been accepted to date. Calls for greater sanction relief from the international community as well as by the House of Representatives is increasing. While the formal lifting of sanctions designed to constrain problematic regimes is inadvisable, a nuanced approach—including exemptions for and fast tracking of medical equipment and supplies—is vital to public health. The impact of sanctions will become increasingly deadly and counterproductive to the colossal global public health effort to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

This is a key test for U.S. regional leadership in advancing international efforts to contain the pandemic. Sanctions relief will likely grow as international issues such as North Korea’s COVID-19 infection rate grows. China and Russia have expressed skepticism of the efficacy of sanctions and will likely press further in seeking sanction relief.

With globalization, the world is more interconnected and less static. In the resulting grayzone, a middle path must be struck to ensure sanctions against North Korea do not hinder the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amber Jamil is an international relations professional with a focus on nonproliferation and South Asia.  She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Image: Reuters


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