North Korea’s launch of what is presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles amid rising fears over the rapid spread of the new coronavirus has made many pundits outside the reclusive state wonder about the motives behind the seemingly reckless, but probably well-calculated move.
On Monday, the North fired two projectiles from an area near its eastern coastal city of Wonsan into the East Sea. It is the first provocative act by the North since Nov. 28, when it launched two missiles. Last year, the recalcitrant regime test-fired weapons, including new types of short-range missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile, 13 times amid the stalled denuclearization talks with the US.
Pyongyang’s latest provocation embarrassed South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had proposed inter-Korean cooperation on health care a day earlier. In a speech to commemorate the 1919 public uprising against Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula, he said that all Koreans would be “safer” when the two Koreas jointly respond to tackle infectious diseases.
The North may not be inclined to consider Moon’s offer, as it claims there has not been a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in the isolated state, while the South has been struggling to contain the mass outbreak of the deadly viral infection.
Critics here say Moon was inconsiderate to make the proposal at a time the health care system in the South is being stretched to its limit in the anti-virus fight.
According to some cynical observers, the North appears to have rebuffed what it saw as yet another unsubstantial offer by immediately countering it with a show of force.
Monday’s launches are in line with Pyongyang’s pledge to continue to build its military capabilities in a bid to strengthen its bargaining power.
In his New Year’s message, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned that his regime would show off a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. The threat seemed to reflect his anger and frustration with Washington’s refusal to make concessions without any significant progress in denuclearization.
The latest launches came days after the first anniversary of the second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi on Feb. 27-28, 2019, which ended with no deal.
There is also speculation that the first missile test-firings in three months may be part of Kim’s strategy to tighten the reins as his regime faces tougher conditions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak in China in December.
The North moved quickly to close its border with China to prevent the virus from reaching the impoverished state, which lacks the medical supplies and infrastructure to test and treat infected people. The measure has significantly reduced imports of daily necessities from China. North Koreans’ plight appears to be worsening as strengthened quarantine measures have led to the shutdown of most private markets, which are essential to their livelihoods amid longstanding international sanctions on the Kim regime.
An official at Pyongyang’s Health Ministry said last week that the North would keep its border closed until effective means of diagnosis and treatment for the respiratory virus were “completely developed.”
It is doubtful that the North is telling the truth when it claims to have seen no confirmed cases of COVID-19. According to its state-run media, nearly 7,000 people are being monitored for symptoms. Experts here suspect Pyongyang is hiding a massive number of confirmed infections.
Kim may now feel an urgent need to divert the growing anxiety and discontent among his people in order to avoid his regime being rattled beyond his control.
He made his first public appearance in more than three weeks on Feb. 16 when he visited the mausoleum of his late father.
He also supervised a joint strike drill Friday, ending the North’s low-key military posture in the wake of the virus outbreak.
On the following day, he presided over a meeting of the politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party to discuss anti-virus measures. During the meeting, two key members of the party’s central committee were dismissed for being involved in corruption, in what observers see as a bid to pacify the public.
The virus outbreak may have made Kim aware of the risks of relying too heavily on China. After running out the clock on the epidemic, he may be seeking to reopen talks with Washington and Seoul.