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North Korea Launches More Ballistic Missiles, Even During Pandemic 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides artillery fire competition in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on March 20, 2020.

North Korea has test-fired what appear to be two short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea’s military said Saturday.

North Korea has test-fired what appear to be two short-range ballistic missiles, South Korea’s military said Saturday.

The weapons were fired from North Pyongan province and splashed into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is not clear what kind of missiles were tested or how far they traveled. But Japan’s defense ministry said the weapons were not estimated to have fallen in Japan’s territory or exclusive economic zone.

North Korea has conducted three rounds of short-range rocket tests this month, even while fighting off a potentially disastrous coronavirus outbreak.

Everything's fine?

Pyongyang, which has called coronavirus prevention a matter of “national survival,” has reported no infections. Even as cases swell across the globe, North Korea is in some ways projecting an image of normality.

This month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has observed multiple “artillery fire competitions” between Korean People’s Army units. In-state media photos, Kim has not worn a mask, though top officials around him sometimes do.

In what appears to be another show of confidence in its ability to handle the pandemic, North Korea on Saturday announced it would go ahead with a major meeting of hundreds of political leaders. The Korean Central News Agency reported the plenary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly would be held on April 10.

North Korea attempted to seal its borders to keep out the coronavirus in late January, just after the outbreak emerged in neighboring China. That move foreshadowed the severe immigration restrictions later seen in countries around the world. But completely sealing North Korea’s borders would be difficult, since its economy relies on both formal and informal trade with China. Many experts say the coronavirus has almost certainly reached North Korea.

Humanitarian aid

A North Korean outbreak could quickly lead to a humanitarian disaster since the country lacks adequate medical supplies and infrastructure. Global aid agencies have begun supplying medical aid to North Korea, though the process has been complicated by international sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week said Washington has offered humanitarian help to North Korea amid the crisis. Pompeo said it was the “right thing to do,” despite “deep differences” between Washington and Pyongyang.

Stalled talks

Even before the outbreak, U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks had been stalled for months. North Korea has boycotted the talks after the U.S. refused to meet its demand for sanctions relief and other concessions.

As negotiations broke down in 2019, North Korea began a series of regular, short-range missile and artillery tests.

Analysts say the missile tests may be designed to keep up pressure on the U.S. or may serve as a show of strength for a domestic audience. Another reason: North Korea is simply trying to produce more advanced weapons.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under U.N. Security Council resolutions. But U.S. President Donald Trump says he is not concerned about North Korea’s short-range tests. Trump has not responded to the latest launches, but earlier this month said he had “no reaction” to what he called “short-term missiles.”