North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Saturday, the latest in a series of such launches by Pyongyang as the world battles against the coronavirus pandemic.
The South Korean military has condemned the launches as “extremely inappropriate given the plight the world is facing due to COVID-19 … We urge them to stop immediately”.
North Korea has not reported any cases of coronavirus, which has become a major crisis with 11,300 deaths and more than 270,000 infections worldwide.
However, there has been much speculation that the virus has reached the isolated nation, and health experts have warned that it could devastate the country given its poor medical infrastructure and widespread malnutrition.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense also confirmed the North Korean launches.
For decades, North Korea’s leadership has been the subject of international criticism for prioritizing spending on its military and nuclear weapons program rather than meeting the needs of the people – even in times of famine .
Pyongyang considers his military development necessary for security in the face of what he describes as American aggression. North Korea is subject to several sets of punitive sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs.
Hopes of a thaw after meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump have been shattered because they have failed to make substantial progress in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, and Pyongyang has since then continued to refine its military capabilities, analysts said.
With the latest launch, Pyongyang “is pursuing an international strategy to standardize its missile tests,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.
Shortly before the launch, the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, announced that the European Parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, would meet on April 10.
The event would involve gathering around 700 officials in one place, analysts said. Such events have been banned in many parts of the world to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“North Korea would not risk holding a national political event of this magnitude if the regime was not sure of preventing or containing the spread of the virus,” senior analyst Rachel Minyoung Lee told AFP. on the specialized site NK News.
Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, offering “comfort” as Seoul battled the worst virus epidemic outside of China at the time.
South Korea has since largely contained the epidemic.
Although North Korea insists there is not a single case of COVID-19, Pyongyang’s draconian restrictions on movement, masked propaganda, public punishment of ‘corrupt’ elites “violating quarantine efforts and the rush to build medical facilities suggests that COVID-19 has entered the country,” said Easley of Ewha University.
“Pyongyang is probably facing a national coronavirus crisis.”
With whirling fears about a COVID-19 outbreak in North Korea, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana, called Pyongyang earlier this month to provide access to outside medical experts and humanitarian aid.
The United Nations Security Council said last month that it would make humanitarian exemptions from sanctions against North Korea to help it fight the coronavirus.