What does Covid in North Korea mean for missile tests?

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North Korea was already struggling with its economy; could lockdown measures derail its nuclear ambitions?

While the rest of the world struggled with Covid-19, North Korea claimed to have been unaffected by the pandemic.

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Many believe the secret state’s claims of zero coronavirus cases are of course false, but now the reclusive country has finally admitted the virus has crossed its borders.

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The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said tests on samples collected from an unidentified number of people with fevers in Pyongyang on Sunday (May 8) confirmed they were infected with the Omicron variant.

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Leader Kim Jong Un has even imposed a strict nationwide lockdown to contain the first confirmed Covid-19 outbreak of the pandemic.

So why the change of pace from stubborn denial of the inevitable to acknowledgment of North Korea’s own fallibility?

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Here’s everything you need to know.

What does the corona virus mean for North Korea?

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For more than two years, North Korea has maintained the much-challenged claim of having prevented the virus from entering its borders, even though it has spread to virtually every country on the planet.

Although claims of zero Covid cases have been contested, it is believed that any outbreaks that may have occurred may actually have been relatively small, thanks to tight virus controls put in place almost immediately at the start of the pandemic.

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North Korea described the drastic measures taken in early 2020 to stop the spread of the coronavirus as a matter of “national existence”, effectively shutting down cross-border movement and trade – it is even believed to have ordered troops , shoot intruders on sight.

Experts now believe the North’s rare admission of an outbreak is a call for outside help, and while the extent of the spread is unknown, even a relatively small outbreak could have serious consequences.

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“There was the biggest emergency in the country with a hole in our emergency quarantine front kept safe for the past two years and three months since February 2020,” official KCNA news agency said.

(Photo: JUNG Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

The country’s healthcare system was already lackluster, and the North’s draconian border closures further hurt an economy already suffering from decades of mismanagement and US-led sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.

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The population of 26 million remains largely unvaccinated after repeated government refusals to accept vaccines from the United Nations-backed Covax distribution program.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told the PA news agency that Pyongyang’s admission of omicron cases “must mean that the public health situation is serious”.

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What is North Korea’s lockdown like?

According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un has called for a full lockdown of North Korea’s cities and counties, saying unit workplaces should be isolated to prevent the virus from spreading.

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He has urged officials to stabilize transmissions and eliminate the source of infection as soon as possible while minimizing public discomfort caused by restrictions.

Despite the decision to increase anti-virus measures, Kim has ordered officials to press ahead with planned construction, agricultural development and other government projects while strengthening the country’s defense posture to avoid a security vacuum.

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How will it affect the North’s nuclear ambitions?

However, some experts have noted that the virus’s presence could jeopardize the leadership’s plans for further missile or nuclear tests.

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However, that does not appear to be the case and South Korea has previously said North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles towards the sea just hours after it confirmed its first case of the coronavirus.

The three missiles were reportedly fired from North Korea’s capital region on Thursday afternoon (May 11) and headed toward the country’s east coast.

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The tests could serve as a reminder of North Korea’s commitment to press ahead with its efforts to improve its arsenal despite the outbreak, to rally support for Kim Jong Un and keep the pressure on its opponents.

The inclusion of the cases in Pyongyang could have a surprising morale-boosting effect among the country’s population, while at the same time opening up the possibility of help.

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“It doesn’t mean that North Korea will suddenly be open to humanitarian aid and take a more conciliatory stance towards Washington and Seoul,” Easley said.

“But the Kim regime’s domestic audience may be less interested in nuclear or missile testing when the pressing threat is coronavirus rather than a foreign military.”

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