Coming as the new coronavirus strain holds the world’s attention, North Korea’s first projectile firing this year could be seen to underscore its intention to draw the focus of the United States onto Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
At a key ruling party meeting in late December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to unveil a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. But the nation had shied away from provocative actions since earlier this year amid the outbreak of the pneumonia-causing virus.
As it has spread, first detected in China’s central city of Wuhan late last year, North Korea has stepped up efforts to head off the disease, taking measures such as cutting off traffic to and from neighboring countries.
At the same time, sources familiar with the situation on the Korean Peninsula have pointed out that Pyongyang may be facing a significant economic downturn after being forced to drastically reduce trade activities with its key economic lifelines — China and Russia.
Germany and France are also reported to have decided to close their embassies in Pyongyang, increasing the likelihood that North Korea will be more diplomatically isolated down the road, the sources added.
“North Korea has reacted very quickly to the outbreak,” one source in Beijing told Kyodo News. “It has closed borders early and extended quarantines to 30 days for all arriving foreigners, so it might be able to contain the virus to some extent.”
North Korea has claimed that no one in the country has been infected with the new coronavirus, which causes the disease officially known as COVID-19.
But Pyongyang’s controls “have had negative side effects on North Korea’s economy, which had already been stagnant due largely to economic sanctions imposed by the United States,” the Beijing source said. “Kim Jong Un seriously wants to get sanctions relief as soon as possible.”
Between May and November in 2019, the regime carried out multiple test-firings of ballistic missiles.
On Monday afternoon, South Korea’s military said the North launched two unidentified projectiles from its eastern coast toward the Sea of Japan.
The projectiles appeared to have been short-range ballistic missiles launched from near Wonsan, and flew about 240 kilometers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
With governments across the globe, including that of U.S. President Donald Trump, focused on curbing the outbreak of the new virus, speculation had been growing that North Korea would do something provocative to regain the spotlight, according to observers.
On Saturday, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim had overseen military drills the previous day, which was his first appearance in state-run media in around two weeks.
“The launch is meant to refocus the Trump administration’s focus on North Korea, in an effort to get some sanctions relief and possible aid as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University.
“With the failure of Kim’s diplomacy in mind, the world distracted with the COVID-19 epidemic and the Trump administration not even discussing North Korea, Pyongyang’s missile test is signaling to the United States that North Korea is still a disruptive force that needs to be dealt with,” he added.
Other foreign affairs experts have also said North Korea is likely to continue test-firing missiles and that Kim may think Trump, seeking a second term in office, will not want to be humiliated by Pyongyang in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in November.
A diplomatic source, however, is skeptical that Kim would escalate his provocations against the United States, given that the spread of the new virus has apparently dealt a heavy blow to North Korea’s economy.
“In addition to sluggish trade and tourism activities, North Korea has paid the huge costs of countermeasures against the new virus. And although North Korea has concealed the information, I suspect there are many infected people at home,” the source said.
“North Korea no longer has sufficient funds available to develop ballistic missiles and conduct test-firings of them so many times,” the source added.
The new coronavirus has so far sickened more than 80,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide.
North Korea is believed to be vulnerable to infectious diseases, especially given the chronic food and medical shortages triggered by international economic sanctions aimed at thwarting Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.
In the past, during the 2002-2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, North Korea has barred foreigners from entering the country.
In October last year, the United States and North Korea held a working-level meeting in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, but it ended without progress. Pyongyang has said the talks broke down as Washington came to the table “empty-handed.”
With the United States and North Korea having fallen short of bridging the gap between denuclearization demands and calls for sanctions relief, it seems Kim has effectively retracted his promise to refrain from intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests.
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