Kim Jong Un is engaged in North Korea's busiest-ever year of missile tests. Photo: AFP/KCTV

At a time when the world’s attention is glued to the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea test-fired its latest barrage of missiles early Tuesday morning.

The test is believed to have been of short-range, anti-ship missiles, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, which closely monitor North Korean military activities.

The projectiles were fired from the east coast and splashed approximately 150 kilometers east of the peninsula, in the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea. The drills continued for about 40 minutes, the JCS said.

It was the fifth test this year. Four separate tests of various missile systems were conducted last month.

Tuesday’s tests, of cruise missiles – which fly on flat trajectories – are not sanctioned by UN Security Council resolutions. However, for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his military, which is banned from tests which include ballistic missile technology by the UNSC, there has, perhaps, never been a finer time to carry out weapons tests.

Pyongyang can conduct a range of activities that would, in more normal times, generate considerable noise in the global diplomatic and political spaces, but which a distracted world now has little interest in, and which are unlikely to draw anything more than cursory condemnation.

And North Korea is not the only player making regional moves under cover of Covid-19.

Political aims

Tuesday’s test firings may have been statements as they were fired one day before South Korea goes to the polls in legislative elections. Wednesday is also the birthday of North Korea’s “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un and the nation’s most revered figure.

Yet while North Korean missile tests often have political aims – such as the famous Hwasong ICBM test launched on July 4, US Independence Day – the country’s military, like those in other nations, also needs to test weaponry periodically for tactical and technical reasons unconnected to wider global political considerations.

“You have to test systems that are new to bring them online and certify them as operational; these are engineering steps anyone has to go through,” Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based expert on strategy at Troy University, told Asia Times. “And once systems are deployed, their units have to train with them.”

Given the global distraction provided by the ongoing pandemic, and the unprecedented response to it in Western Europe and North Korea, the timing for weapons tests may well be ideal.

In March, North Korea conducted four separate tests of varied missiles. The last, of a super-large Multiple Launch Rocket System, took place on the 29th.

March also marked the height of the Covid-10 outbreak in South Korea. That same month, the virus emerged as a major threat to both Western Europe and the United States.

“There are different aspects to North Korean weapons tests and there is a range of interpretations,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean watcher at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “But 70% of their intention [at present] is probably technical. The pandemic is great for North Korea.”  

Pinkston, too, warned against viewing weapons tests as purely political events.

“Of course, there is the political aspect, but many people only focus on that – “They’re only doing it because of us,’” Pinkston said. “But units that use weapons systems have to train with them – the targeting, the command and control, the communications, the mobility.”

With US President Donald Trump deep in crisis mode as he grapples with the world’s largest Covid-19 outbreak – a black swan that could potentially cost him the presidential election in November – Pyongyang is freer than usual to flex its muscles.

While doing so, it may be reasonably confident that its actions will generate neither front-page news coverage nor meaningful or concerted diplomatic reactions from either Washington or from around the world.

Calibrated flexing

Kim’s actions appear well calibrated. All of this year’s tests so far have been of tactical, theater weapons rather than strategic weapons that would threaten the US.

North Korea continues to refrain from carrying out headline tests – such as atomic detonations, long-range ballistic missiles or possibly the launch of a satellite using dual-use booster technologies.

Some had feared and expected such tests in 2020 following bellicose statements from Pyongyang at the outset of the year.

While light had unexpectedly dawned upon North Korea-US relations in 2018 thanks to an unprecedented, though largely inconclusive leaders’ summit in Singapore, interactions have since returned to their customary frosty state. 

A second leaders’ summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019 failed to advance the Singapore agenda – or, indeed, to improve or upgrade bilateral relations in any way.

The test of a strategic device would likely raise the ire of Trump, who likes to boast of his amicable relationship with Kim, and who uses North Korea’s reluctance to test strategic weapons as proof of his diplomatic nous.

“Sure, it is a good time to test, but I also sense that they are not going all the way, they are remaining below the threshold that Trump has established,” Go said. “They are operating under that ceiling and abiding by the kind of understanding that, if North Korea does not make too much noise, then the US is going to turn a blind eye.”

US distracted

Kim may not be the only leader busting moves in the region in the time of Covid-19 when Western powers are seriously distracted. With US carrier battle groups under siege from Covid-10, the apparently unscathed Chinese People’s Liberation Army is deploying and posturing in the strategic South China Sea.

A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk after being rammed by a PLA Navy vessel early this month in disputed waters and a PLA Navy carrier battle group is now conducting maneuvers in the South China Sea, near Taiwan,

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military appears to be expanding its powers and cracking down on opposition groups.