A Return to Form in North Korea?

COVID–19 in South Asia; South Korea’s legislative elections; Asian currencies

The Big One.

Kim Jong Un gets back to missile testing.

As the rest of the world watches  with horror as the COVID–19 pandemic spills across borders, claiming hundreds of lives each day, North Korea has sought to project an image that it’s all business as usual in the country. To underscore that point: March 2020 marked the single busiest missile testing month in the country’s history, with eight separate missiles launched over four events. After a lull in missile testing through December, January, and February, Kim Jong Un made sure that national defense preparations returned to their usual springtime intensity.

In the Kim Jong Un era, March has usually meant a step-up in missile and military activity from North Korea in general. Before 2018, this was usually a tit-for-tat reaction to the U.S.-South Korea springtime exercises, formerly known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. In 2020, the alliance called off its springtime drills as South Korea faced a reckoning with COVID–19. 

To be sure, North Korea has not brushed off the pandemic. Indeed, not long after the outbreak in China’s Hubei province, North Korean state media was frank in describing the then-epidemic as a threat to the country’s “national survival.” Senior North Korean officials—but not Kim Jong Un—were photographed wearing face masks in the course of their regular duties. By the start of March’s military activities, Kim was surrounded by Korean People’s Army officers clad in face masks, indicating that COVID–19 lingered in the background of this seeming return to military normalcy: the message was that even the pandemic would not deter North Korea from maintaining military readiness.

By the final missile tests of March, the face masks were gone and North Korea was projecting that it had overcome the pandemic. This is unlikely to be true, even as the country has yet to declare a single confirmed case of the virus (either due to propaganda concerns, or simply because it lacks the diagnostic capacity to do so). In an interview with Voice of American and CNN on Thursday, General Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said he thought that North Korea was making an “impossible claim.” He said that U.S. intelligence suggested that North Korea had cases of the virus, just like every country in the region. He added the following:

I do know by their actions that for about 30 days in February, early March, that their military was locked down. And they took draconian measures at their border crossings and inside their formations to do exactly what everybody else is doing, which is stop the spread.

That matches other known evidence. In January, for instance, satellite imagery suggested that North Korean troops were preparing for a probable February 8 military parade—as they had done in 2018. That parade could have been a moment to celebrate the hard-line policy laid out by Kim Jong Un at the Fifth Plenum of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in December 2019, but it was promptly called off as the country went into a lockdown over COVID–19, including by closing its borders and preventing all travel in and out of its borders (result in, among other things, a total collapse in its exports to China, as Troy Stangarone discussed in The Diplomat recently). Indeed, North Korea’s COVID–19 containment efforts are going to be the closest thing to a natural experiment in what “maximum pressure” might actually like.

As April begins, North Korea has turned its attention back toward the United States, taking aim at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for his statement after a G7 foreign ministers call that the countries should remain united against North Korea—and that sanctions relief should only be offered up for total denuclearization. A recent Foreign Ministry statement out of the country promised “payback,” suggesting that Pyongyang could step up its provocations to even transgress what has long been seen as a “red line” for U.S. President Donald J. Trump: the resumption of either long-range missile or nuclear weapons testing. Pyongyang may sense a weakened United States, distracted by the spread of COVID–19 within its own borders. In an incredible development, the country’s state television featured footage of White House press briefings on the virus situation in the United States.

All of this raises the question of how North Korea is likely to play its cards between now and the November U.S. elections. Kim Jong Un has already teased a “new strategic weapon”—something that might be shown off with a test or perhaps at an October 10, 2020, parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Even as much remains unclear about how the country is faring internally with COVID–19, Pyongyang appears determined to signal that everything remains on track. As the same statement that bashed Pompeo last month put it, North Korea is determined to continue to go its “own way.”

Bottom Line: Pyongyang is pushing ahead with military testing and development, even as COVID–19 seizes global attention and energy.

Don’t Miss It: On the latest episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast, my co-host Prashanth Parameswaran and I talk about North Korea’s busy March and what might lie ahead for the country. As always, if you like the podcast and have suggestions for future episodes, please get in touch.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence.

I’m excited to introduce a new offering from The Diplomat. Diplomat Risk Intelligence is the new consulting and analysis division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine. To learn more, click here.

East Asia.

On April 15, South Koreas will vote in the country’s 21st legislative election. While President Moon Jae-in won’t be on the ballot, these mid-term legislative elections are widely seen as an opportunity for South Korean voters to offer a referendum on the president’s performance by rewarding or punishing their party. Moon, having successfully “flattened” South Korea’s COVID–19 curve in recent weeks, may find himself forgiven by voters who had earlier been angered by the South Korean president’s early reaction. 

But this won’t be an election solely about COVID–19. South Korean voters have long been concerned about the state of the country’s economy, job creation, and North Korean policy as well (particularly in 2018 and 2019, as Kim Jong Un had embarked on a diplomatic charm offensive).

Campaigning for the upcoming elections began this week, as Jenna Gibson reports. “With only 14 days of campaigning allowed by law, the ruling Democratic Party is hoping to capitalize on the political momentum from the government’s largely successful coronavirus response to retain a plurality of seats in the legislature,” she writes. 

Even as the election isn’t about COVID–19, the pandemic will affect turnout and voter participation in unpredictable ways. South Korean authorities are making arrangements to allow for greater democratic participation by vulnerable groups. Critically, due to the spread of the pandemic around the world, many overseas Koreans will be unable to cast votes because their polling stations won’t be accessible as the pandemic reaches new heights in the United States and Europe (for example).

The world is learning several lessons from South Korea’s experience with COVID–19 and, depending on how the upcoming elections go, Seoul may yet have lessons for other countries that would hope to hold elections amid this pandemic. Singapore, with a general election anticipated in the coming months, may be watching closely.

Bottom Line: Moon Jae-in faces an important mid-term referendum in South Korea’s upcoming legislative elections.

Data points: With the World Bank calling for debt relief for low-income countries amid the economic hardship that is already emerging from COVID–19, researchers find that China, in particular, may have an important role to play in easing debt burdens. New research from the Center for Global Development finds that “China’s role as a creditor has likely been a key driver of more burdensome lending terms in the form of higher interest rates, shorter maturities, and shorter grace periods.” As a result, Beijing should “reconsider its approach to lending in LICs and demonstrate greater sensitivity to debt risks”—including COVID–19.

Intelligence and the pandemic: U.S. intelligence sources have told Bloomberg News that their assessment is that China is substantially concealing the true extent of its own COVID–19 outbreak, with the propaganda apparatus in the country having turned toward a narrative of successful containment. The implications of understanding the true epidemiology of the disease within China has important implications for public health efforts elsewhere. At The Diplomat, Scott Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers look at China’s COVID–19 statistics and their reliability.

South Asia.

Generic drugs have emerged as a point of contention between India and the United States. New Delhi has turned inward, restricting the export of these drugs that could come into high demand depending on what treatments are prescribed for the management of COVID–19 symptoms. Trump administration officials have reportedly officially asked the Indian government to lift restrictions. The matter could turn into a major sticking point in U.S.-India ties in the coming weeks as demand for COVID–19 treatments grows. More broadly, it underscores yet another supply chain complication arising from the pandemic’s rapid spread. There are policy solutions for the United States, including creating incentives for domestic drug manufacturers, but the Indian export restrictions will continue to be a point of focus in bilateral talks.

Don’t Miss It: On a recent episode of Asia Geopolitics, Prashanth Parameswaran and I take a look at how various South Asian countries have individually reacted to the COVID–19 pandemic and the potential for regional cooperation (through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, which held an emergency meeting).

Asia Defense.

COVID–19 and Asia’s flashpoints. My colleague Prashanth Parameswaran contemplates the possible conflict that might arise in Asia’s many flashpoints as a result of COVID–19 in The Diplomat. Might the pandemic mark the end of the region’s so-called “long peace”? “While Asia has seen so-called ‘long peace’ since 1979 – a term often loosely used in order to characterize the steep decline in inter-state conflict relative to the past (which, notably, does not include intra-state conflict or tensions) in the region since that time – the region is still home to some key flashpoints, with the most prominent ones being North Korea, the East and South China Seas, and tensions across the Taiwan Strait, along with other unresolved territorial and maritime disputes as well that are less in the spotlight.”

Lasers and more. Patrick M. Cronin and Ryan D. Neuhard write in The Diplomat on China’s growing military use of lasers: “Beijing is leveraging lasers and other emerging technologies to expand and police its offshore sphere of influence and keep American and allied naval power at bay. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finds it insufficient to fabricate law with expansive nine-dash line claims and coerce others the old-fashioned way via ramming and gunboat diplomacy.”


Don’t miss issue 65 of The Diplomat‘s e-magazine, which is fresh off the presses for subscribers. 

This month, we look at the prospects for an elusive peace one year after the the long-awaited Mindanao deal took effect in the Philippines. We also talk with Bruneians to see how Sharia law has impacted daily life, preview what’s at stake in South Korea’s upcoming elections, and explore the new high-tech controls China rolled out to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.