Analysis-As N.Korea gears up for potential nuclear test, missiles get little domestic fanfare

·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: North Korea's launch of three missiles including one thought to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean state media has kept quiet about a recent flurry of missile tests amid an unprecedented coronavirus wave - perhaps to avoid overshadowing a potential nuclear test, analysts say.

North Korea launched three missiles on Wednesday, including its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the HS-17, prompting live-fire drills by the United States and South Korea and a renewed push for fresh U.N. sanctions.

The rare near-simultaneous launch of multiple types of missiles came amid the country's first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak, which U.N. agencies say might bring a devastating crisis for its 25 million people.

The tests show the North is committed to making technical progress on its weapons programmes, analysts say. But North Korea's state media, which would otherwise trumpet successful launches and the country's evolving nuclear and missile capability, has been unusually silent.

"As the North is also preparing for a new nuclear test, state media could be waiting to maximise its propaganda effect by refraining from publicising tests of missiles that were already unveiled," said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute's North Korea studies centre in South Korea.

The recent tests have not always been successful. South Korea said the second of the three missiles fired on Wednesday, believed to be a KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) failed mid-flight.

"These may be purely about making technical progress and, in the case of the suspected KN-23s, getting added operational experience," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

South Korea's deputy national security adviser, Kim Tae-hyo, said the ICBM test seemed to be aimed at checking the missile's stage separation and propulsion systems, and its general performance, while the SRBM launch could have been to improve its nuclear delivery capability.

He also said there are signs that North Korea may have conducted multiple experiments with a detonation device in preparation for what would be its first nuclear test since 2017, though the test was unlikely to occur in the coming days.

"North Korea's nuclear programmes continue to be evolving," Kim told reporters on Wednesday. "The progress might not show a vertical ascent, but you have to constantly make checks and improvements."

"That's why sanctions are important, and restraining or slowing that progress is our task," he added.

Panda noted the absence of coverage in Rodong Sinmun, the North's official newspaper that serves as its main domestic propaganda machine, which could suggest that Pyongyang was not seeking any "internal propaganda benefit" from those tests.

The Sejong Institute's Cheong said the silence of state media might also be intended to minimise China's complaints and facilitate its COVID aid.

North Korea has not responded to South Korea and U.S. offers of COVID vaccines and medical supplies but is receiving Chinese help, Seoul's intelligence agency told lawmakers last week.

"North Korea was in desperate need for Chinese support to tackle the COVID wave and you wouldn't want to make them uncomfortable," Cheong said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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