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N. Korea Has Record Month for Missile Launches, With Global Focus on Coronavirus

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FILE - People watch a TV screen showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 21, 2020. The North conducted another apparent missile test early March 29.

North Korea has conducted another missile test, sending a fresh signal it will not stop developing weapons even amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The North launched two short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea off its east coast early Sunday, according to South Korea’s military. The weapons, fired from the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, flew about 230 kilometers and reached a maximum altitude of 30 kilometers before splashing into the ocean.

The weapons did not enter Japan’s territory or exclusive economic zone, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

North Korea has conducted four rounds of missile tests this month, firing nine missiles in total. That sets a record for the most North Korean missiles fired in a single month, said Shea Cotton of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

'New capabilities'

“The only time we've seen tests this frequently were in 2016 and 2017, both of which were huge years for North Korea's missile program,” Cotton said on Twitter. “If things continue, I think we're going to see something similar to both those years, with more missile tests and new missiles being premiered, giving North Korea new capabilities.”

North Korea appears to be taking advantage of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the coronavirus.

Pyongyang, which has called coronavirus prevention a matter of “national survival,” has reported no infections. Even as cases swell across the globe, North Korea is in some ways projecting an image of normality.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has overseen many of the weapons tests. In state media photos, Kim has not worn a mask, though top officials around him sometimes have.

In what appears to be another show of confidence in its ability to handle the pandemic, North Korea plans to go ahead with a meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament on April 10. The meeting will likely require hundreds of political leaders to gather at the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Bid to seal borders

North Korea attempted to seal its borders to keep out the coronavirus in late January, just after the outbreak emerged in neighboring China. That move foreshadowed the severe immigration restrictions later seen in countries around the world. But completely sealing North Korea’s borders would be difficult, since its economy relies on both formal and informal trade with China. Many experts say the coronavirus has almost certainly reached North Korea.

A North Korean outbreak could quickly lead to a humanitarian disaster, because the country lacks adequate medical supplies and infrastructure. Global agencies have begun supplying medical aid to North Korea, though the process has been complicated by international sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under U.N. Security Council resolutions. But U.S. President Donald Trump says he is not concerned about North Korea’s short-range tests. Trump has not responded to the latest launches, but earlier this month said he had “no reaction” to what he called “short-term missiles.”

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