On Thursday North Korea continued its spate of provocative weapons tests, this time firing off at least three ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters, according to South Korea's defense ministry and Japan.
The timing is raising alarm given it comes just ahead of President Joe Biden's planned trip to the Korean peninsula. Late next week he's expected in Seoul after which he heads to Japan, where the White House stated he'll "discuss opportunities to deepen our vital security relationships."
This fresh launch is Pyongyang's 16th round of tests so far this year - which has included its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in five years, with the last known one being in 2017.
Fox News writes of the reaction in Tokyo: "Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida instructed officials to do their utmost to analyze the launch, ensure safety of aircraft and vessels in the area and take precaution and readiness for any possible emergencies, according to his office."
There's also speculation that NK leader Kim Jong Un wants to signal to the world a strong defense posture as the country deals with its first officially acknowledged coronavirus case since the pandemic began.
Unconfirmed social media videos emerging this week have shown eerily empty city streets as the nation goes on complete lockdown...
"Earlier Thursday, North Korean state media confirmed the country’s first COVID-19 infections as Kim ordered nationwide lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. Kim also ordered officials to bolster the country’s defense posture to avoid any security vacuum," The Associated Press reports.
State media is calling the COVID-19 threat the 'gravest national emergency'... "A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020," official KCNA news agency said. Prior outbreaks have been suspected by outside observers; however, these were never acknowledged by state authorities.
Reuters observes that according to the latest data from the World Health Organization, 64,207 North Koreans have received COVID-19 testing and all had been found negative as of March 31.
However, it is unclear if or how many of North Korea’s population of 26 million have been vaccinated, given that the nation rejected shipments of vaccines from the COVAX global COVID-19 vaccine-sharing program and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, which would require international monitoring.