N. Korea's missile launch amid pandemic criticised

Above: A man in the South Korean capital Seoul watching breaking news of North Korea's projectile launch yesterday. Left: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watching an artillery fire contest with high-ranking military officers last Friday.
A man in the South Korean capital Seoul watching breaking news of North Korea's projectile launch yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Above: A man in the South Korean capital Seoul watching breaking news of North Korea's projectile launch yesterday. Left: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watching an artillery fire contest with high-ranking military officers last Friday.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watching an artillery fire contest with high-ranking military officers last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Pyongyang likely struggling with virus crisis and does not want to show signs of weakness: Experts

SEOUL • North Korea yesterday fired two projectiles that appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea's military said, calling the action "highly inappropriate", given the coronavirus pandemic.

The suspected missiles were fired around 6.45am local time into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula from around Sonchon in North Pyongan province, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

Sonchon is above Pyongyang, near the north-west corner of the Korean peninsula.

"Such military action by North Korea is highly inappropriate at a time when Covid-19 is causing difficulties worldwide," the JCS said, calling for an immediate stop.

Japan's Defence Ministry confirmed the North Korean launch, which came just hours after Pyongyang confirmed it would go ahead with a session of the Supreme People's Assembly, its rubber-stamp legislature.

As an event that gathers almost 700 of the country's top officials, analysts said it was a show of strength amid the virus outbreak. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

"If it goes ahead, it would be the ultimate show of (North Korea's) confidence in managing the coronavirus situation," Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee of the North Korea monitoring website NK News said on Twitter last week.

Despite Pyongyang insisting it does not have a single case of the virus, its "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", said Professor Leif-Eric Easley at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"Pyongyang is likely struggling with a coronavirus crisis on a national scale," he added.

 
 
 

The country is viewed by aid organisations as especially vulnerable to an outbreak as its health system lacks resources and because of international sanctions.

"Not only does Pyongyang wish to avoid signs of weakness during the coronavirus crisis, it wants its people to believe that North Korea stands in a position of relative strength," said Prof Easley.

"Kim (Jong Un) can improve military capabilities... at little cost because international aid is unlikely to be cancelled after these tests, China and Russia refuse to tighten sanctions, and the US and South Korea are focused on defence cost-sharing negotiations and Covid-19," he said, referring to the North Korean leader.

State media KCNA yesterday said Mr Kim guided an artillery fire contest between combined units of the army last Friday, issuing photos of him watching with high-ranking military officers, all unmasked.

Yesterday's missile launch followed two incidents this month, when North Korea launched short-range missiles and multiple projectiles, according to South Korea's military, drawing US and Chinese appeals for Pyongyang to return to talks on ending its nuclear and missile programmes.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline 'N. Korea's missile launch amid pandemic criticised'. Print Edition | Subscribe