On Saturday 21 March, while the rest of the world sought to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea continued in its attempts to project strength to the world. The rogue state fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, drawing condemnation from the international sphere.
This missile launch, one of many that North Korea has undertaken since Kim Jong Un came to power, may have a secondary purpose in the current climate. By commencing this test in the middle of a worldwide crisis, North Korea could be attempting to project its own internal strength. Analysts have noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could mean Saturday’s missile tests achieve something of a propaganda ‘win’ for North Korea on the international stage. As the pandemic occupies the thoughts of government officials, journalists, and the general public worldwide, the North Korean leadership is instead projecting an image of ‘business-as-usual.’ Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, echoes this thinking, saying, “Not only does Pyongyang wish to avoid signs of weakness during the coronavirus crisis, it wants its people to believe that North Korea stands in a position of relative strength.” While the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff called Saturday’s missile launch “highly inappropriate” and called for an immediate halt, Pyongyang is currently under little pressure to do so, with Easley noting that “Kim can improve military capabilities … at little cost because international aid is unlikely to be cancelled after these tests, China and Russia refuse to tighten sanctions, and the U.S. and South Korea are focused on defense cost-sharing negotiations and COVID-19.”
It is currently unknown how many cases of COVID-19 there are in North Korea. The official reports state that there are zero instances of the illness in the nation. If such a claim were true, it would be an impressive response from the isolated and underdeveloped nation. However, the current international consensus indicates that North Korean leadership are not reporting the truth to the international community. An activist and defector originally from North Korea, Seo Jae-pyoung (now head of the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors), told reporters that he had heard of some cases of COVID-19 being present in the reclusive nation. “I’ve spoken directly with people in North Korea and have heard that North Korea declared a state of emergency,” Seo said. “I heard that the first case in North Korea was confirmed on January 27, and that the People’s Army locked down roads and railways in provincial cities, and that people were not even able to walk in the streets.” Meanwhile, political moves by Pyongyang, which included a personal letter from Kim Jong Un to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, appears to signal significant anxiety regarding the pandemic. One commentator noted that North Korea may be trying to organize itself to receive humanitarian relief to combat the pandemic. As such, the current round of missile tests cannot be regarded as a solely military effort, but should instead be considered in terms of political posturing.
If the North Korean leadership continues along its current path, international efforts to combat COVID-19 could be at risk. The danger posed by allowing the spread of the virus throughout the population could lead to a resurgence of the illness in nations which have already dealt with it. Meanwhile, ignoring the ongoing crisis in order to project an image of strength will only lead to a significant quantity of deaths.