March 24, 2020 | Policy Brief

North Korea Conducts Third Projectile Launch in 2020

March 24, 2020 | Policy Brief

North Korea Conducts Third Projectile Launch in 2020

North Korea launched two short-range projectiles and conducted a live-fire artillery competition late last week as the rest of the world, and likely North Korea itself, confronts the coronavirus pandemic. The purpose of these latest provocations may be to advertise the gradual advancement of North Korea’s rocket artillery and ballistic missile capabilities, but they may also be an effort to divert attention from signs that the regime is incapable of addressing the coronavirus epidemic.

This is North Korea’s third weapons firing in 2020. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) launched the two short-range projectiles from North Pyongan Province. The projectiles flew to a range of approximately 410 kilometers, with a maximum in-flight altitude of 50 kilometers. Based on analysis of the projectiles’ movement and of images of the projectiles, open source assessments thus far suggest they were KN-24 short-range missiles, which bear similarities in appearance to the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

The NKPA likely launched the KN-24 missiles from a 600mm multiple rocket launcher (MRL) system. North Korea already tested this MRL system last year. This test likely was a scheduled component of the NKPA’s Winter Training Cycle, which is slated to end in March. Additionally, re-testing the KN-24 missile could signify that the NKPA is now preparing to field these weapons. According to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, there is a “limited deployment” of a 300mm MRL (KN-09) along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

If this is the case, both Washington and Seoul should be concerned, considering these systems could reach U.S. military bases at Camp Humphreys, Osan Air Base, and Cheongju Airbase if fielded along the DMZ. North Korean propaganda cryptically alluded to these U.S. and ROK bases as a “fat target.”

Another explanation for the latest weapons tests is they are a smokescreen for North Korea’s inability to effectively confront the coronavirus pandemic. Weapons provocations therefore could be Pyongyang’s warning to the United States and South Korea not to interfere in North Korea’s present internal crisis. Although the regime publicly stated there have been zero infections, it may be covering up an outbreak as reports emerge that as many as 200 North Korean soldiers have already died from the virus.

Experts have noted that any kind of pandemic could have catastrophic consequences for North Korea due to its lack of a robust public health infrastructure. If Pyongyang indeed is covering up an outbreak within the military, the loss of military leaders’ support and loyalty represents a potential pathway to a full regime collapse. Yet there is still a dearth of concrete information, making it premature to conclude this is happening.

Furthermore, Pyongyang’s latest weapons test should remind Washington and Seoul’s respective leaderships that the North Korean threat persists and grows. Although both governments currently confront domestic challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, the United States and South Korea should continue to the best of their ability to manage, strengthen, and ultimately restore their alliance as the critical lynchpin deterring North Korean aggression.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

COVID-19 Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy