North Korea Fires Two Apparent Missiles into Sea of Japan in Its First Test This Year

March 02: North Korea fired two apparent missiles off its east coast Monday in its first weapons launch of the year, ending months of inactivity amid a diplomatic stall with the U.S. and a national lockdown over coronavirus fears.

Pyongyang test-fired the projectiles from a site near the city of Wonsan and into the waters between South Korea and Japan, according to Seoul’s military. They launched at 12:37 p.m. local time, soaring about 22 miles high and covering a distance of some 150 miles.

The projectiles didn’t fly as high or as far as many of those observed during a spree of tests last year. The South Korean military said the two projectiles were most likely short-range ballistic missiles.

Officials in Seoul believe the weapons test is linked to a military drill recently overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In that drill, he judged the “mobility and the fire power strike ability” of the country’s defense units, the North’s state media reported Saturday. Pyongyang didn’t have immediate comment on Monday’s launch.

The latest test may have been done more for as a show of strength for North Koreans than to send a message to Washington or Seoul, close Pyongyang watchers say, as the North considers allowing in foreign aid to fight the coronavirus epidemic. Bordering China, where the epidemic began and the largest outbreak has taken place, and South Korea, where the next-most severe outbreak has occurred, the Kim regime needs foreign assistance to help diagnose and treat any large spread of the highly contagious virus due to its poor health infrastructure, medical experts say.

Pyongyang has yet to report a single case of coronavirus, though state media in the past week has reported that thousands are being closely monitored. Nearly 400 foreigners are being quarantined. Mr. Kim, in a weekend Politburo meeting, warned of “serious consequences” if there is a widespread outbreak.

Monday’s apparent missile test could be a message to North Koreans that the country maintains a powerful military, as it relents on allowing in international aid groups, said Park Won-gon, a North Korean expert at South Korea’s Handong Global University.

“Kim Jong Un has no choice but to open their society to outside help,” Mr. Park said.

On Feb. 13, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the North’s vulnerability to coronavirus, adding it would “expeditiously facilitate” relief groups. At least one humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, has since gained United Nations exemptions to deliver testing kits and other medical materials.

South Korea’s unification ministry said Monday it would expand efforts to broaden health-care collaboration with North Korea. In a national address the prior day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for broader inter-Korean cooperation, saying the lives of Koreans “will be safer” when the two countries can respond together.

The North’s last weapons test came on Dec. 13, when it conducted a ground test that South Korean military experts believed was a practice run for a rocket engine used in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its most recent missile launch before Monday occurred on Nov. 28.

Source: Wall Street Journal / Timothy W. Martin

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