TOKYO — North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles four times in March as the world struggled to deal with the new coronavirus. Each event involved two or more launches, with all of the missiles landing in the Sea of Japan. Analysts are trying to figure out what is behind North Korea’s increased missile activity while the country is on high alert for COVID-19.
Around 7,000 people suspected of having the virus have been quarantined in Pyeongannam, Pyeonganbuk and Gangwo provinces, according to North Korean state-run media and other news organizations. Reports have also said there were people under “medical monitoring” in Hwanghaenam, Jagang and Hamgyeongnam provinces, and in Kaesang City.
Social unrest from the outbreak may rattle Kim Jong Un’s regime, which is especially nervous about controlling its 1.2 million-man military.
The Chinese-North Korean border was closed a month after the first coronavirus infection was confirmed in China. With North Korea relying on China for more than 90% of its external trade, the closure has dealt a huge blow to the economy.
The coronavirus hit at a time when North Korea was wracked by international sanctions. The Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party decided at the end of last year to pursue economic resilience and strengthened military capabilities, amid the stalling diplomatic talks with the U.S.
Given his country’s dire situation, Kim had to demonstrate visible military achievements if he was to keep consolidating power. North Korea test-fired short-range ballistic missiles on March 2, March 9, March 21 and March 29. Kim oversaw the drill on March 2 and reportedly expressed “great satisfaction” over the artillerymen’s preparedness to “perfectly carry out their combat duties.”
As a result, North Korea is improving its missile warfare capabilities and Pyongyang is repeating its test-firings. The nine or more missiles launched in March had two salient characteristics. First, North Korea used advanced rocket launchers that can fire multiple rockets in quick succession.
Second, some of the missiles had characteristics resembling the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missile and the Russian Iskander advanced missile. ATACMS and Iskander missiles fly low and can rise after descending, making them difficult to intercept. The missiles also used solid fuel. This not only makes them difficult to detect but also to destroy before launch.
North Korea is developing its missile technology to deter attacks by U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, while improving its capability to target Seoul and its 10 million inhabitants. The existing missile defense system used by the U.S. and South Korea would be unable to shoot down all of the missiles.
The South Korean Dong-a-Ilbo newspaper says this “poses a deadly threat to the South.” North Korea, showing off its enhanced military capability, has implied it will field these new missile systems.
As the coronavirus spreads throughout the world, the threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs will continue to grow, and Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will need to address the security risk.