North Korea Distracts From Virus Threat With New Missile Launch

Jihye Lee
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North Korea Distracts From Virus Threat With New Missile Launch

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea fired what appeared to be three short-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast, raising regional security concerns as world leaders battle the spread of the coronavirus.

The projectiles were fired in quick succession Monday from a coastal area near Sondok, flying about 200 kilometers (125 miles) and reaching an altitude of about 50 kilometers before falling into waters separating the peninsula from Japan, the South Korean Defense Ministry said. The South Korean presidential office said the provocation was “not helpful for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “a serious problem for the international community.”

The raid-fire launch appeared similar to North Korea’s KN-25 -- a short-range ballistic missile designed to be fired from a single launcher to overwhelm interceptors. Last Monday, North Korea launched what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles from another location on its eastern coast.

The incidents broke a three-month lull in testing and represent Kim Jong Un’s first such provocations after saying Dec. 31 that he was no longer bound by a self-imposed freeze on major weapons tests. Kim spent much of last year threatening to take a “new path” in nuclear talks with the U.S. in 2020, if President Donald Trump didn’t make a more appealing offer.

Last Monday’s launch came about a year to the day that Trump broke off a summit with Kim in Hanoi, saying the North Korean leader was asking too much in terms of sanctions relief and offering too little disarmament in return.

Trump has brushed off previous short-range testing even though they violate United Nations resolutions barring North Korea from firing off ballistic missiles of any kind. After last week’s test, Trump told reporters he had no reaction.

The provocations come as Kim facing a domestic challenge from the coronavirus, which could easily overwhelm his country’s antiquated and underfunded medical system. North Korea is sandwiched between the counties with the most confirmed infections in the world -- China and South Korea.

While North Korea’s secretive government hasn’t disclosed a single confirmed coronavirus case, state media has reported for weeks about measures the government has taken to prevent local outbreaks. Kim has sealed off the borders in response, a move that cut off a trickle of trade and foreign tourism into the country.

Moreover, Kim needs to find some way to remain relevant as the virus roils the U.S. and other government around the globe, said Soo Kim, a policy analyst at Rand Corp. in Washington. “These launches are a surefire way to gain attention and remain on our radar -- both from the optics of nuclear negotiations and the coronavirus outbreak,” she said.

Jenny Town, managing editor of policy and analysis website 38 North, said that the Monday launch might indicate that North Korea was preparing to test a full salvo of four missiles now that its firing time was down to about 20 seconds. The KN-25 system previously featured in state media has four launch tubes.

--With assistance from Isabel Reynolds, Peter Pae and Kana Nishizawa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Jon Herskovitz

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