Amid the global coronavirus pandemic, that started in the Chinese city of Whuan in December 2019 and has swept to as many as 177 countries, North Korea reminded the world, more particularly the President Donald Trump, that its long-term ambition of being recognised as a nuclear power remains undiminished. As if to remind the world, it renewed a flurry of ballistic missile launches in an unprecedented move, the latest being two short-range ballistic missiles into the ocean off its east coast on March 27, 2020.
Thus it signalled that it will not stop developing weapons even amid a coronavirus pandemic. It fired two short-range ballistic missiles from the eastern coastal city of Wonsan that flew about 230 kilometres and reached a maximum altitude of 30 kilometres before splashing into the ocean. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defence, the weapons did not enter Japan’s territory or exclusive economic zone. As expected, South Korea reacted by saying the launches were “inappropriate”, especially at a time when the world was battling the pandemic and therefore called for an immediate halt.
With global focus on caronavirus, March has been a record month for the launch of missiles by North Korea. So far, it has launched four rounds of missile tests, firing nine missiles in total, setting a record for the maximum number of North Korean missiles fired in a single month. The world had seen similar missile launches in such frequency by North Korea in 2016 and 2017. Those were critical years for the North’s missile programmes.
Since North Korea relentlessly moves towards more sophistication in weapons development, the world might witness more missile tests in 2020, giving the country more capabilities. The timing of the missile launches is interesting. At a time when the attention of the world is focussed on how to contain the spread of the deadly virus, North Korea has controlled information to the outside world and has reported no infections. It has projected an image of normality. Though the country closed the borders and all tourist traffic into the country well in time, it remains to be seen how it remained insulated from the spread of the virus when as many as 177 countries are reeling under its severity.
Kim Jongun often boasts of showing his presence at the site of missile launches but was not seen wearing a mask. As if to show to the world everything is normal, Kim has called a meeting of its rubber- stamp parliament on April 10 when hundreds of political leaders are expected to be present at the Supreme People’s Assembly. He claims that he closed the borders to keep out the coronavirus in late January, days after the outbreak in China as against other countries which imposed immigration restrictions later. But since North Korea relies on both and informal trade with China, it is difficult to believe if it indeed succeeded in sealing the border completely.
This has led observers to believe that the virus definitely reached North Korea. Global agencies fear that despite that Kim might try to control information and present a distorted picture to the world. There are fears that if the virus spreads in North Korea, it could lead to a humanitarian disaster. Though medical help is pouring in from the global agency, the delivery process is hamstrung by international sanctions imposed in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
Politically and economically isolated, North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases, though some foreign experts have expressed doubts. North Korea is one of the few remaining countries in the world that are yet to report a case of novel coronavirus infection. Under the UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea is barred from any ballistic missile activity. With the focus on controlling the spread of the virus, President Trump seems to have lost interest in the North Korean issue.
Probably, he tried to hold summit meetings with Kim, but these yielded no outcome. No wonder he said that he is not concerned over North Korea’s short-range tests. He also did not respond to the latest launches and had commented “no reaction” to what he called “short-term missiles” when asked to comment on the launches by the North in early March. All the missiles fired so far this year have been small, shortrange weapons, such as the KN- 24 fired during the launch on March 21.
Kim has warned that North Korea is developing a new “strategic weapon” to be unveiled this year. Analysts speculate that it could be a new longrange ballistic missile, or a submarine capable of launching such missiles. The outbreak of coronavirus in South Korea has compelled it to postpone its annual joint military exercises with the US. Pyongyang generally responds with similar military drills as a counter to the US-South Korea joint military exercises.
North Korea typically conducts military drills, including tests of its ballistic missiles, in March as the wintry weather turns warmer. In the previous two years, however, it had avoided such springtime launches amid denuclearisation talks with the US. The talks are now stalled. So, this year’s string of missile launches appear to be aimed at underscoring North Korea’s return to a more hardline policy. The latest launch by Pyongyang came after a prolonged hiatus in disarmament talks with the US, with no sign of progress.
The latest missile launches were believed to be two short-range ballistic missiles, described as a new “tactical guided weapon”. This despite the fact that Trump had sent a letter to Kim Jong-un detailing a plan to develop ties. This did not prevent Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, who warned that the apparently good personal relationship between the two leaders would not be enough to foster broader relations. After the second summit in Hanoi was deadlocked over sanctions relief, Kim set a unilateral end-2019 deadline for Washington to offer fresh concessions.
In late December, he declared that his country no longer considered itself bound by moratorium on nuclear and international ballistic missile tests. The series of missile launches in March demonstrate that the nuclear diplomacy between the US and North Korea remains a nonstarter, as no tangible progress has ever been made.
(The writer is Lok Sabha Research Fellow and Member, Governing Council of Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])