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
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”