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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korea’s missile development and military activities remain “normal” despite the global coronavirus outbreak, a top American military commander in charge of nuclear weapons said on Tuesday.
The comment, from Admiral Charles A. Richard, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, comes as governments around the world — from Pyongyang to Seoul to Washington — continue to take extraordinary measures to contain a growing pandemic that has already killed more than 7000 people around the world.
The U.S. and South Korea recently called off a round of planned military exercises because of the outbreak, but North Korea — which claims to have no coronavirus infections within its borders — has already conducted four artillery drills and missile tests since the end of February.
Asked by a reporter if North Korea and Iran’s missile forces have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Admiral Richard said the answer was no.
“Strategic deterrence is not a static mission,” he said in a video-conference with reporters at the Pentagon. “That is something that we look at every single day for every single potential threat to this nation,” he said.
“To date, we have not seen anything beyond what I would describe as normal or day-to-day operations by anyone.”
North Korean state media said the North’s latest artillery drills, conducted last Thursday, were intended to ensure combat readiness “under the simulated conditions of an actual war.”
Richard’s comments also come after another top Pentagon official, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said last week that DPRK leader Kim Jong Un may be ready with an “even more capable” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) design that could threaten the United States.
“Kim Jong Un has demonstrated the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear-armed ICBMs,” O’Shaughnessy said in written testimony submitted to Congress.
“Recent engine testing suggests North Korea may be prepared to flight test an even more capable ICBM design that could enhance Kim’s ability to threaten our homeland during a crisis or conflict.”
The U.S. Defense Department officials’ comments may be a sign that the coronavirus has not held North Korea back from its military endeavors in a meaningful way, even as the top American military commander in South Korea said on Friday that he was “fairly certain” the disease had already entered the DPRK.
The North has not yet reported any drills this year involving a mass gathering of troops, however — perhaps to avoid the risk of a large group of soldiers suddenly becoming infected.
Unconfirmed reports of coronavirus cases — including deaths — have come out of North Korea for weeks, but Pyongyang has so far denied having any infections of the contagious virus within its borders.
Thousands of people living in the DPRK have been subject to preventive quarantines, according to reports, and many already have reportedly been released.
Edited by Oliver Hotham