- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2020

North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles toward the East China Sea over the weekend, according to the South Korean military — a move that highlights the country’s continuing military expansion amid a global health pandemic.

The U.S. and South Korea have said they are looking into the launches, while Seoul called on Pyongyang to end its “very inappropriate” military activity as the world grapples with the coronavirus crisis.

The missiles are believed to have been launched from North Pyongan Province and traveled approximately 410 kilometers into the East Sea, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Such military action by North Korea is highly inappropriate at a time when COVID-19 is causing difficulties worldwide,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said, according to Reuters.

While North Korea has yet to declare a single confirmed case of coronavirus, it is reported to have closed its borders with China and imposed drastic quarantine measures.

Some global health experts warn that the totalitarian regime may be covering up a massive outbreak.

Each country bordering North Korea has reported a significant number of cases including more than 81,000 in China, at least 367 in Russia,and 8,897 in South Korea, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker.

North Korean state media claimed last week that the isolated nation will build a vast general hospital in Pyongyang by October to confront any possible public health threats, but stopped short of naming coronavirus as a threat.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a ceremony to break ground on the hospital, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, which cited state media in Pyongyang as calling the development a “crucial task” to prop up public health.

The State Department last month expressed concerns about North Korea’s “vulnerability” to such an outbreak, citing the country’s weak health care infrastructure.

In a statement, the department said it supports international aid efforts to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the country and is “ready and prepared to expeditiously facilitate the approval of assistance” from health organizations despite crippling sanctions on North Korea. Amid the global pandemic, Mr. Kim received a letter from President Trump offering cooperation and “good relations” as the world races to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Mr. Kim’s sister and senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong claimed Sunday the regime received a letter from Mr. Trump, and said her brother was grateful for the correspondence as the two countries face “big difficulties and challenges lie ahead in the way of developing ties.”

She said the letter included a plan to “propel the relations between the two countries … and expressed [Mr. Trump’s] intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work.”

The letter was in line with the administration’s efforts to maintain communications with global leaders during the pandemic, a senior administration official told the Associated Press. They said the president “looks forward” to ongoing communication with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader have exchanged several letters with notably subdued language since the landmark 2018 summit between the two countries to begin denuclearization negotiations.

But how the coronavirus situation stands to impact denuclearization diplomacy that has stalled between the U.S. and North Korea over the past year remains to be seen, and experts have warned that a potential coronavirus outbreak in North Korea could make the Kim regime less willing that it already is to engage in nuclear talks.

“In my personal opinion, I think that the bilateral relations and dialogue for them would be thinkable only when the equilibrium is kept dynamically and morally and justice ensured between the two countries,” Ms. Kim said. “Even at this moment we are working hard to develop and defend ourselves on our own under the cruel environment which the U.S. is keen to ‘provide.’”

⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire reports.

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