The Straits Times says

Pandemic amplifies Pyongyang's woes

Two years after United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a historic summit here on Sentosa island, Pyongyang has announced it is withdrawing from further overtures towards Washington. The North's Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon has complained of empty promises and a sense of betrayal. Separately, Ms Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader's sister, whose influence has grown steadily, threatened to cut off ties with South Korea and to shut down the "useless" liaison office in the border town of Kaesong. Evidently, angered by a stream of propaganda balloons sent across the border by activists attacking the North, she also threatened to end all military agreements.

The stridency of the North's tone underscores several factors, not least of which is a frustration that promised reliefs from sanctions - for which Pyongyang destroyed its only known nuclear test site in March 2018 as a show of goodwill to Washington and Seoul - have not come to pass. Pyongyang and Washington agreed in Singapore to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which Washington has taken to mean unilateral nuclear disarmament by North Korea, while Pyongyang has regarded it as including America's withdrawal of its military presence in South Korea.

The lack of detail and clarity in the agreement made it a non-starter, as has become apparent. But the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly exacerbated North Korea's already parlous state, although Pyongyang does not offer disease numbers. China, the North's only patron and military ally, already has its hands full, with a threatened second wave of the pandemic, a slowing economy and a frightening dip in ties with the US that has spread nervousness across Asia. That Mr Kim's sister has emerged with a higher profile in recent months suggests a signal from the Supreme Leader to both his domestic and international audiences that the Kim dynasty still has a long runway left, in the event of any misfortune befalling him.

For the moment, the world perhaps need not be unduly rattled by any new threat emanating from the North - although Seoul did hold an emergency national security meeting on Sunday. Likewise, live-fire demonstrations in February and missile launches in March and April have not moved the needle. While Pyongyang may think it can score points against Mr Trump in an election year by highlighting the failed relationship, the US leader could probably turn it into yet another example of alleged Chinese-influenced perfidy. Needling the US and South Korea apart, North Korea cannot afford a significant escalation. It is not a happy situation for the regime. But until the US election is over, the periodic flaring of tempers by an unpredictable Pyongyang will continue.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic amplifies Pyongyang's woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe