Meanwhile in Pyongyang


North Korea is by definition enigmatic. Very little goes in and even less comes out, but after a month of era-defining disease, it is easy to forget about the ‘little rocket man’ of Pyongyang. But just to make sure that the world hasn’t completely relegated him to being the answer of obscure pub quiz questions, Kim Jong-un ordered two rocket launches on the 2nd of March.

These launches had become notable only by their absence. In 2019 the North Korean military carried out no fewer than 10 sets of missile launches, but the launches on March 2nd were the first of 2020. General Robert Abrams, the US military commander in South Korea claims that he has seen intelligence suggesting the North’s military had been in lockdown for the whole month of February. If this is true, and there is little reason to doubt it, then these two launches are more of a message to the North’s own army than to the rest of the world. A sign that they have pushed through the peak of the Covid19 curve and will be back to nefarious business as usual. 

The North has breathing room for the moment, as the US tries to get South Korea to pay for the cost of US troops in the South, a policy which South Korea refuses to accept and which leads to agonising budget negotiations in annual instalments. The US has not helped this situation by furloughing, without any pay, South Korean workers its military hires because of reduced need for them following the Covid-19 outbreak. This gives the North wiggle room to sow seeds of division. 

However, despite the upheaval the world is currently experiencing, little in the fundamental calculus has changed. The North is still a poor, broken country with delusions of grandeur and a chronic reliance on its bigger cronies; notably China and Russia. These missile tests do not change that. In fact, they are just a return to the status quo. 

Little in the fundamental calculus has changed. The North is still a poor, broken country

Rather than seeing the virus as an opportunity to assert its military might, Kim’s generals need to be careful. Facing an election battle fought under the umbrella of an every-rising Covid-19 death toll, Donald Trump will need small wins which he can lie into big wins, as well as scapegoats and attention-diverters. The obliteration of North Korean missile sites by a Carrier Strike Group, assuming the President can find a new Secretary for the Navy, would tick a lot of those boxes. 

It is doubtful that this would come about as the result of some grand international strategy. China has become less and less interested in propping up North Korea in recent years and it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un would risk it all and launch an attack on the US military any time soon. There are simply no good outcomes for his leadership, dynasty and country in that scenario. The bigger threat, rather, is that which comes with the secrecy of North Korea; that of miscalculation. With an impulsive US President who reportedly refuses to read briefings longer than one page and who is facing an imminent election he is likely to lose, Mr Kim must tread carefully. Otherwise, Mr Trump might decide that it is time for Mr Kim to be at the receiving end of some missile testing of his own. 

Image: Driver Photographer via Flickr

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