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FOCUS: N. Korea's 1st projectile firing of 2020 aimed at getting US attention

In this March 2, 2019 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves upon his arrival at Vietnam's Dong Dang railway station. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- North Korea's first projectile firing this year underscored its intention to prod the United States into shifting its focus to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, as the new coronavirus strain has drawn attention around the world.

    Following the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus, first detected in China's central city of Wuhan late last year, North Korea has stepped up efforts to head off the disease by taking measures, such as cutting off traffic to and from neighboring countries.

    At a key ruling party meeting in late December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to unveil a "new strategic weapon" in the near future. But the nation had shied away from provocative actions since earlier this year amid the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

    Sources familiar with the situation on the Korean Peninsula, meanwhile, have pointed out that Pyongyang may be facing a significant economic downturn as it has been forced to drastically reduce trade activities with its key economic lifelines -- China and Russia.

    Some countries like Germany and France have also reportedly decided to close operations of their embassies in Pyongyang, raising expectations that North Korea would be diplomatically isolated down the road, the sources added.

    One of the sources in Beijing told Kyodo News, "North Korea has reacted very quickly to the outbreak. It has closed borders soon and extended quarantines to 30 days for all arriving foreigners, so it might somewhat be able to contain the virus."

    North Korea has claimed that no one in the country has been infected with the new coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease officially known as COVID-19.

    But Pyongyang's moves "have had negative side effects on North Korea's economy that already has been stagnant due largely to economic sanctions imposed by the United States," he said. "Kim Jong Un seriously wants to get sanctions relief as soon as possible."

    On Monday afternoon, South Korea's military said the North, which had carried out multiple test-firings of ballistic missiles between May and November in 2019, launched two unidentified projectiles from its eastern coast toward the Sea of Japan.

    The projectiles that appeared to have been short-range ballistic missiles were launched from near Wonsan, and flew about 240 kilometers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

    With governments across the globe, including that led by U.S. President Donald Trump, concentrating on curbing the outbreak of the new virus, speculation had grown recently that North Korea would do something provocative to regain the spotlight, pundits say.

    On Saturday, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported Kim oversaw military drills the previous day, which was his first appearance in state-run media in around two weeks.

    "The launch is meant to refocus the Trump administration's focus on North Korea in an effort to get some sanctions relief and possible aid as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads," said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University.

    "With the failure of Kim's diplomacy in mind, the world distracted with the COVID-19 epidemic and the Trump administration not even discussing North Korea, Pyongyang's missile test is signaling to the United States that North Korea is still a disruptive force that needs to be dealt with," he added.

    Other foreign affairs experts also said North Korea is likely to continue test-firing missiles as Kim may think Trump, who is seeking a second term in office, does not want to be humiliated by Pyongyang in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in November.

    A diplomatic source, however, is skeptical that Kim would escalate his provocations against the United States, given that the new virus spread has apparently dealt a heavy blow to North Korea's economy.

    "In addition to sluggish trade and tourism activities, North Korea has paid the huge costs of countermeasures against the new virus. And although North Korea has concealed the information, I suspect there are many infected people at home," the source said.

    "North Korea no longer has sufficient funds available to develop ballistic missiles and conduct test-firings of them so many times," the source added.

    The new coronavirus has so far sickened more than 80,000 people and killed over 3,000 worldwide.

    North Korea is believed to be vulnerable to infectious diseases against the backdrop of chronic food and medical shortages triggered by international economic sanctions aimed at thwarting Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

    In the past, North Korea barred foreigners from entering the country during the 2002-2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.

    In October last year, the United States and North Korea held a working-level meeting in the Swedish capital Stockholm, but it ended without progress. Pyongyang has said the talks broke down as Washington came to the table "empty-handed."

    As the United States and North Korea have fallen short of bridging the gap between denuclearization demands and calls for sanctions relief, Kim has effectively retracted his promise to refrain from intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests.

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