North Korea may launch ICBM in show of strength as Covid-19 surge challenges Kim Jong Un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks next to the "Hwasong-17" intercontinental ballistic missile on March 25, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Kim Jong Un may be preparing to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to coincide with US President Joe Biden's trip to the region, CNN reported, as the North Korean leader battles a Covid-19 outbreak confronting his regime.

Mr Kim looks to be preparing to test launch an ICBM in the next two to four days, the cable news channel said, citing a US official familiar with the latest intelligence assessment.

North Korea's ICBMs are designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland, and the country in March fired one off for the first time in more than four years - highlighting the feat in a slickly produced video shown on state TV.

Mr Kim presided over a Politburo meeting on policies to halt an outbreak that his government said has infected about 1.7 million people and killed 62 in the past few weeks, the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Wednesday (May 18).

Top leadership also chastised officials who failed "to properly handle affairs in the current health crisis due to shortage of their experience", it said.

The coronavirus crisis is providing one the biggest tests of Mr Kim's leadership since he took power a decade ago. His propaganda apparatus has tried to deflect blame for the outbreak to lower-ranking officials while his country has put on shows of its military might to remind its people of its strength in the face of a flareup that could crush its antiquated medical system.

Mr Biden will embark on a trip that takes him to South Korea and Japan from Friday to try to coordinate with the US allies on security threats posed by the likes of North Korea, while seeking their participation in a new economic grouping to strengthen supply chains in a way that reduces reliance on China.

North Korea has ignored offers of Covid-19 aid from South Korea and others, and his isolated country along with Eritrea is one of only two in the world that has not started a vaccination program against the virus, according to the United Nations.

Pyongyang appears to have sent airplane to China, its biggest benefactor, in the past few days to pick up medical supplies, NK News and Yonhap News Agency reported.

The country is even more vulnerable after it refused vaccines. Estimates from the UN's food aid agency said about 40 per cent of its population is undernourished, which could magnify the impact of the virus.

Mr Kim's regime has not called the hundreds of thousands of infections "Covid", likely because the country doesn't have enough testing kits to confirm that the cases were caused by the coronavirus.

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