Usually such provocative moves would elicit global condemnation, dominate more news headlines. Not in today’s frenzied world, where the Covid-19 coronavirus hogs nearly the entirety of every media homepage.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Kim Jong-un has used the current inattention towards his persisting missile programme to authorise these tests. Yet there may be an additional motive, for the tests may also serve as a distraction for his own people in the midst of the heightened panic over Covid-19.
Despite Donald Trump praising Kim’s handling of the virus outbreak, and Kim claiming that nobody in North Korea has yet been infected, there is serious cause for concern that the destitute people living under the Stalinist regime will suffer greatly at the hands of Covid-19.
Whilst much is made of North Korea’s isolation from the rest of the world, its border with China is particularly porous, with goods, legal and illicit, regularly passing back and forth. Given the Chinese origin of the coronavirus, it is surely only a matter of time before the virus breaches the flimsy wall of the Hermit Kingdom?
Despite the government maintaining a firm grip on traditional media, the North Koreans are no longer as oblivious to global events as they once were. Any spread of the virus cannot be passed off as an attack on North Korea by unfriendly powers, given that it is quite obviously spreading around the world at an astonishing pace.
Traditionally, misfortunes and crises in North Korea have been blamed on the nefarious intentions of the United States or other non-communist powers. The devastating famine of the mid-1990s is a case in point, when the government’s disastrous land reform policies resulted in millions of deaths. The people remained ignorant of the root cause, however, pervasive social media still being a couple of decades away.
Other hardline communist nations have acted similarly. Cuba was on the verge of collapse at the same time as the North Korean famine. This beautiful island, previously the elegant retreat and playground of wealthy Americans, descended into barbarism as ordinary people struggled to survive. Mass starvation was afoot and prostitution and drug dealing became rife, crime exploded in the fight over black market goods, individuals turned to criminality rather than work 100-hour weeks for an appalling government salary. One need only read the visceral depravity of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’ Dirty Havana Trilogy to get a sense of the horror unfolding because of the incompetence of the Castro regime. Of course, the Americans got the blame and given their track record in Cuba, most of the public were willing to buy the excuse.
Going back further in the 20th century and you find the devastation wrought by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Soviet famine of the 1930s brought about by Stalin’s forced collectivisation. Here, internal enemies were blamed, whether they be ‘capitalist roaders’ in China or ‘Trotskyites’ in the USSR, all linked to a wider global conspiracy against the communist utopian vision.
The lack of a significant rebellion against these government-imposed tragedies was partly due to fear, but also because the government narrative was successful in portraying the enemy as the ‘other’, largely through a tight control on the media.
This is no longer the case and, as is also evident in Iran, dictatorial regimes cannot keep their people in the dark about the coronavirus. Death tolls cannot be kept artificially low, ‘business as usual’ will not work in the long run.
The last ‘pure’ communist regime – albeit perhaps only in name – may be less robust than some have recently thought. Kim will be aware of the menace posed by a potentially widespread coronavirus outbreak. Will this be the surprise catalyst to ending the regime after years of predictions about an American attack, a Chinese conspiracy or an internal coup?
North Korea is uniquely unprepared for a medical emergency of this magnitude. With a crumbling health-care system that is starved of public investment, it is arguably more vulnerable to a viral outbreak of this kind than any other country in the world.
So Kim is resorting to the standard distraction. Look at our new missiles. Look at our national development. Look at how powerful we are. It may wash with some, but with a brave and resilient civil society operating across North Korea, aided by contacts in the neighbouring South, the narrative can become easily corrupted. Particularly if large numbers of people begin to die. The easy excuses of the 20th century are unlikely to work in the uber-connected 21st.