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Brazilian diplomatic cables shed light on North Korea missile testing

. Apr 30, 2020
Brazilian diplomatic cables shed light on North Korea missile testing North Korean soldiers at a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: Astrelok/Shutterstock

In a diplomatic cable, the Brazilian ambassador to Japan warned the country’s embassies around the world of a potential escalation of the North Korea missile testing program during the Covid-19 pandemic. Writing from Tokyo, Mr. Saboia noted the reaction of the Japanese government to Pyongyang’s latest ramping up of its ballistic tests in March, which, according to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “represent a serious problem to (…) the international community.”

While the rest of the world is struggling to hold their health systems together, the North Korean central government may be using these military operations to show off its leadership capabilities.

</p> <p>According to news website <em>Defense News</em>, North Korea conducted <a href="https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2020/04/10/expect-a-surge-in-north-korean-missile-tests-and-of-greater-range/">nine missile tests in March</a> — the most recorded in a single month — and there is an expectation that this frequency will continue.</p> <p>&#8220;Making use&#8221; of the coronavirus pandemic is not exclusive to North Korea, however. As we noted on April 25, several countries have eyed the <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/04/25/argentina-exits-mercosur-negotiations-upending-trade-deals/">Covid-19 crisis as an opportune time to carry out normally controversial moves</a>. For instance, China has been accused of militarizing and expanding its claim on the South China Sea, while U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted last week that he has &#8220;instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass [U.S.] ships at sea.&#8221;</p> <h2>Where&#8217;s Kim?</h2> <p>Besides the coronavirus, rumors surrounding the ill health of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un have been highlighted by analysts as another possible explanation for North Korea stepping up its weapons provocations. Around discussions of Kim&#8217;s capacity to lead and potential succession plans, the North Korean government will seek to consolidate power and ward off any outside threats — expanding weapons testing would be an effective way to address these issues.</p> <p>Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for almost three weeks, sparking speculation that the North Korean leader may be unwell, or that he may have died. The control over information in the country makes it near impossible for foreign observers to obtain any trustworthy details about Kim&#8217;s whereabouts or wellbeing. On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed to have a &#8220;very good idea&#8221; of his North Korean counterpart&#8217;s situation. &#8220;But I can&#8217;t talk about it now, I just wish him well.&#8221;</p> <p>Satellite images suggest that Kim Jong-un may be at his summer house in Wonsan, on the eastern coast of North Korea, leading South Korea&#8217;s security advisor to claim that the Supreme Leader is &#8220;alive and well.&#8221;</p> <h2>North Korea is pushing the limits</h2> <p>The cable warns that the March 9 test involved a series of short-range ballistic missiles launched in quick succession, which reportedly poses a serious problem for defense systems, making them difficult to intercept or neutralize.</p> <p>The North Korean ballistic missile system — known in the intelligence community as KN-25 — has been in tests since mid-2019. Back then, the time between launches was 24 minutes; March&#8217;s tests had rockets firing every 20 seconds. Analysts cited by Mr. Saboia in his cable state that the KN-25 system is &#8220;mature,&#8221; &#8220;able to saturate missile defenses,&#8221; and &#8220;ready for real combat.&#8221;</p> <p>The KN-25 system has been favored by North Korea due to the fact that it blurs the lines regarding UN resolution violations. As it is not technically a ballistic missile — classed instead as a &#8220;super-large multiple-rocket launcher&#8221; — North Korea could be allowed to continue KN-25 tests without fear of sanctions. This ambiguity was famously touched upon by Kim Jong-un in November of last year when he called Shinzo Abe &#8220;the stupidest man in history&#8221; and a &#8220;political dwarf&#8221; after incorrectly referring to the KN-25 as a ballistic missile.</p> <p>While the missile tests have all been with short-range weapons that land in the Sea of Japan without straying into Japanese waters, the concern is that North Korea will begin operations using longer-range missiles, posing a physical threat to neighboring countries.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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