Mystery missile tests amid pandemic

While economies around the world grind to a halt as people stay inside to avoid spreading coronavirus, North Korea has ramped up its missile testing program.

On Tuesday the secretive republic appears to have ramped up its missile testing.

Neighbouring South Korea's military said North Korea launched a number of cruise missiles into the Sea of Japan as well as air-dropping more from fighter jets.

If confirmed, it would be the first time in three years that North Korea has tested cruise missiles.

 

A man in Seoul wearing a face mask walks past a TV screen airing reports about North Korea’s firing of missiles. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP
A man in Seoul wearing a face mask walks past a TV screen airing reports about North Korea’s firing of missiles. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP


In the US - where the Trump administration is battling the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has infected more than 600,000 Americans, killing more than 25,000 - the new tests are not worrying the brass.

"I don't think it's particularly provocative or threatening to us as to what happened," Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Mark Milley said in a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday, according to The Hill.

"It may be tied to some celebrations that are happening inside North Korea, as opposed to any deliberate provocation against us," General Milley said, noting the tested missiles were believed to be short-ranged.

Amid the missile tests, North Korea is claiming it's been unaffected by the coronavirus, but the secret regime is having trouble being taken seriously on that claim.

The country shares borders with China, where the virus was first detected, and South Korea, where it spread early on.

However North Korea maintains strict control over its borders and lets in very few foreigners, which would have insulated it from tourists bringing in the virus to some degree, even before the borders were closed entirely in January.

Additionally, South Korea did a good job containing the spread of coronavirus in its early stages and hasn't seen the same devastating spread as countries like Italy, Spain and the US.


North Korean citizens are already prevented from moving freely in the country, so the restrictive measures now being put in place in countries like Australia to stop the virus spreading through the community were already in place before coronavirus was detected.

A North Korean representative to the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week claimed the country is still testing for coronavirus and has around 500 people in quarantine, but still hasn't confirmed any cases.

But one expert thinks the North Korean regime might not necessarily be covering up a coronavirus outbreak, they might just not know about it.

"Even the North Korean Government probably does not know how many cases there are in North Korea," Bucknell University political science professor Zhiqun Zhu told ABC News.

"The fact that they've requested assistance from other countries and many people are wearing masks in public suggests that the virus is spreading," Prof Zhu said.

He also warned that decades of closing itself off to the world may mean North Korea has trouble dealing with any eventual outbreak.

"North Korea's public health system is very fragile and may not be equipped to deal with such a pandemic," he said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with US President Donald Trump for a series of talks last year but neither were able to get what they wanted from the discussions, which have since stalled. Picture: Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with US President Donald Trump for a series of talks last year but neither were able to get what they wanted from the discussions, which have since stalled. Picture: Getty Images

Last year, some unprecedented modern diplomacy between the US and North Korea fuelled hopes the regime could be convinced to denuclearise in exchange for sanctions being lifted against the country.

Those talks broke down by the end of the year.

Kim Jong-un cryptically promised to send US President Donald Trump a "gift" around Christmas time.

Opinions were torn on whether this would be a real, tangible gift or a warning about further testing or possibly even attacks.

There are also elections being held in South Korea on Wednesday, and the latest tests could be intended as a reminder to the next parliament of the threat that exists to the north.



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