North Korea has test-fired what appear to be two short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea’s military said Saturday.
The weapons were fired from North Pyongan province and traveled about 410 kilometers, at an altitude of about 50 kilometers, before splashing into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, according to South Korea's estimates.
“We are aware of a North Korean missile launch this morning into the East Sea, will continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our South Korean and Japanese allies,” said Col. Lee Peters, spokesperson for United States Forces Korea
In its own statement, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff called on North Korea to “immediately stop” such “extremely inappropriate” acts, especially in light of the global difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
North Korea has conducted three rounds of short-range rocket tests this month, even while fighting off a potentially disastrous coronavirus outbreak.
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.
This month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has observed multiple “artillery fire competitions” between Korean People’s Army units. In state media photos, Kim has not worn a mask, though top officials around him sometimes do.
In what appears to be another show of confidence in its ability to handle the pandemic, North Korea on Saturday announced it will go ahead with a major meeting of hundreds of political leaders. The Korean Central News Agency reported the plenary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly will be April 10.
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, since the country lacks adequate medical supplies and infrastructure. Global aid 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week said Washington has offered humanitarian help to North Korea amid the crisis. Pompeo said it was the “right thing to do,” despite “deep differences” between Washington and Pyongyang.
Even before the outbreak, U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks had been stalled for months. North Korea has boycotted the talks, after the U.S. refused to meet its demand of sanctions relief and other concessions.
As negotiations broke down in 2019, North Korea began a series of regular, short-range missile and artillery tests.
Analysts say the missile tests may be designed to keep up pressure on the U.S. or may serve as a show of strength for a domestic audience. Another reason: North Korea is simply trying to produce more advanced weapons.
North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under United Nations 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.”