By Aaron Kliegman
Forget about the Holy Grail: Try finding news these days not about the coronavirus. Like the famed relic, such stories are said to be out there but remain ever elusive. From guns to Venezuela, education to nuclear weapons, it seems that all news is, somehow, connected to the virus.
Of course, the virus is the most important story in the world, as it continues to devastate lives and economies. But, believe it or not, there are other events and developments happening in the world besides the pandemic — including threats that will long outlast the current viral outbreaks. And as the media and policymakers devote seemingly all of their time and energy to the virus, its effects, and the global response, too many people are missing stories that deserve serious attention.
Perhaps the best example is North Korea, which had its busiest month ever for testing ballistic missiles in March. Indeed, Pyongyang conducted nine launches over four separate events — the most launches in a single month in North Korean history. The missiles were of short ranges and not explicitly intended for nuclear activity, but the uptick strikingly occurred after months of no testing. And most Americans probably have no idea about any of this, in part because hardly anyone seems to be paying attention.
North Korea continued its show of force this week, launching multiple short-range anti-ship cruise missiles into the sea and firing air-to-surface missiles from its Sukhoi jets. The tests came on the eve of an important North Korean holiday and South Korea’s general elections.
With the world, especially the US, distracted, consumed by the coronavirus, North Korea may see this period as an opportunity to test aggressively, without fear of consequences. But there is more to the story.
Historically, at least under North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, March has been a busy time for testing missiles and other military activity. A big reason why is because, normally, the US and South Korea begin their springtime military exercises around then. This year, however, Washington and Seoul had to postpone their annual drills because of the coronavirus. But, still, March has been a time of North Korean testing — just not to this year’s extent.
Another possible explanation for Pyongyang’s uptick in launches is to improve morale within the North Korean military. Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of American forces in Korea, said earlier this year that the North’s military had “fundamentally been on lockdown for about 30 days” because of the virus. As Ankit Panda, an editor at The Diplomat, notes, for a force like the North Korean army used to regular exercises, “such a pause is highly unusual and may have required a period of intense exercising afterwards.” Panda also explains that, in December, Kim emphasized to senior North Korean officials the importance of self-reliance in national defense and suggested a more hostile approach to the US without negotiations. With the US struggling to counter the coronavirus and Pyongyang claiming (no doubt falsely) that it has not suffered any cases, Kim may want to use displays of military force to show strength in contrast to perceived American weakness.
Perhaps most troubling, evidence suggests that North Korea could be preparing for a much bigger test. To begin 2020, Kim vowed to introduce a “new strategic weapon.” Meanwhile, newly publicized satellite imagery indicates that Pyongyang is preparing to resume flight tests of long-range, nuclear-capable rockets.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, explains this imagery shows the North appears to have resumed so-called “pop-up tests” at the regime’s test site at Sinpo.
“In a pop-up test, a missile is ejected from a canister or a silo using compressed gas,” Lewis writes. “The missile either has no propellant, the propellant does ignite, or it burns for only a very short time. This step precedes flight testing of the missile.”
Lewis goes on to explain how the images appear to show testers readying Sinpo for a pop-up test — and that similar preparations were seen in May 2017, right before pop-up tests that apparently supported the development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
So, it is possible that North Korea is in the early stages of testing a new missile. But, as Lewis notes, “it could be months before North Korea finishes pop-up testing at Sinpo, then months more before it flight tests whatever is under development there.”
What if North Korea is preparing at Sinpo the “new strategic weapon” that Kim teased to start the year? If that is the case and developing the weapon takes months, then October 10, the date of the parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, would seem the perfect time for Kim to unveil a major weapon. Of course, this is educated speculation, but given how closed off North Korea is from the world, we cannot be sure. Regardless, it would be folly to ignore this potential threat.
A bigger launch would surely get President Trump’s attention, especially if the coronavirus has greatly receded by that point. But for now, North Korea will keep testing missiles — and advancing its arsenal of nuclear weapons. And hardly anyone in newsrooms or the halls of power in Washington seems to be paying attention — let alone know what to do. One thing we do know is that, while the coronavirus will pass soon enough, the North Korean threat is here to stay.
Aaron Kliegman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. Previously, he was a staff writer and news editor at the Washington Free Beacon, where he wrote analysis and commentary on foreign policy and national security. Aaron’s work has been published in a range of publications, and he has a master’s degree in international relations. Aaron is now writing regular columns for the Inner Circle as a contributor, and I am excited to have him on the Gingrich 360 team. — Newt