By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – With international focus on the coronavirus, North Korea has doubled down on its missile development and military exercises in recent weeks while signaling new confidence that it has dodged an outbreak of its own.
Some international experts are skeptical of North Korea’s assertion that it has not had a single case of the new coronavirus, which was first detected in neighboring China.
But for the first time since late February, North Korean soldiers conducting military drills and test firing short-range ballistic missiles over the weekend were shown not wearing face masks in state media photographs.
North Korea has said it has released almost all the foreigners it quarantined as a precaution, and in a decision that surprised some experts, announced it would hold a big gathering of its Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in early April.
“I’m a bit surprised that North Korea decided to go ahead with its spring SPA session,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst for NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.
“That said, this is in line with an apparent shift in North Korean media handling of the coronavirus in the past two weeks which suggested the North Korean regime’s increased confidence in managing the coronavirus situation.”
Besides the SPA announcement, leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, released a statement through state media on Sunday commenting on U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest letter to North Korea, offering coronavirus assistance.
But much of the messaging from Kim Jong Un appears “laser focused” at the domestic audience, said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group think-tank.
“He’s apparently trying to show his confidence and strength to his people, that he is in control, and that the regime is functioning normally by pursuing its strategic objectives despite a national crisis over a virus they have no control over,” she said.
“He needs to keep his constituents in Pyongyang happy and trying to show North Korea is invincible.”
State media has broadcast a stream of reports on how seriously the government is taking its virus-prevention efforts.
One report in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Monday, for example, said a local party official had been punished for undermining nationwide coronavirus prevention measures by organizing drinking parties.
“Under the present situation that witnesses intensified campaign against COVID-19, it comes to be an important political matter that all the people should observe the standards and orders set under the state emergency anti-epidemic system,” the paper said in an editorial, referring to the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Some foreign observers have noted that North Korea’s authoritarian government is actually well placed to impose the kind of restrictions that have been successful in slowing the spread of infections in other countries, and that it has a high number of doctors per capita.
But aid organizations have warned that North Korea’s health system is chronically under-resourced, often fails to meet the daily needs of citizens, and would be hard-pressed to handle any major outbreak of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 337,000 people and killed more than 14,650 around the world.
“Hearing from my relatives there, one thing for sure is the situation is very serious,” said a North Korean defector living in South Korea.
“Otherwise they wouldn’t be so loud on the news about this. There is no way for the residents to know who died.”
The insistence on no coronavirus cases, the SPA presidium and the missile tests were intended to show it was business as usual in North Korea, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.
“Kim Jong Un is trying really hard to project the image that all is good,” Pardo said in a post on Twitter.
(Reporting by Josh Smith, additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Robert Birsel)