North Korea fires another missile hours after confirming Covid broke into hermit kingdom

North Koreans cheer missile launch in bizarre propaganda film

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The short-range ballistic missiles were fired at about 6.30pm local time (9.30am GMT) on Thursday from the Sunan area of the capital, Pyongyang. It is the same location where North Korea had said it fired its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-17, on March 24, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

The JCS said the missiles flew about 224miles (36km), reaching an altitude of 90km and a maximum velocity of Mach 5.

It is the latest move as the isolated country races to advance its weapons programme.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi confirmed the launch, saying the missiles flew about 217miles (350km) to the maximum altitude of around 62miles (100km) before landing outside Japan’s territorial waters.

Mr Kishi said: “A series of missile launches when the invasion of Ukraine is taking place is unacceptable.”

He added that Tokyo had lodged a protest against North Korea via its embassy in Beijing.

The launch was the first since the inauguration this week of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has signalled a hard line against the North’s weapons development.

Mr Yoon’s national security office issued a statement condemning the launch, saying it “deplored the duplicitous conduct” of firing ballistic missiles.

The South also accused Pyongyang of ignoring the plight of its people in the middle of a Covid outbreak.

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In a weapons test on Saturday, North Korea used a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it has been aggressively developing in recent years.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed in April to boost the country’s nuclear arsenal, amid stalled denuclearisation talks with Washington.

US and South Korean officials have warned that Pyongyang’s first nuclear test since 2017 could happen as soon as this month.

North Korea’s 16th known weapons test so far this year came hours after Pyongyang reported its first COVID-19 outbreak.

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Officials declared the outbreak the “gravest national emergency” and ordered a national lockdown.

State media reported that an Omicron variant had been detected in Pyongyang.

The official KCNA news agency said: “The state’s most serious emergency has occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front that had been firmly defended until now.”

Samples taken on May 8 from people in Pyongyang experiencing fevers showed a sub-variant of the Omicron virus, the report said without detailing case numbers or possible infection sources.

The outbreak raises the potential of a major crisis in a country which lacks medical resources and has refused international help with vaccinations. Its borders have also been kept shut.

No cases of COVID-19 were reported up to March, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). There is no official record of any North Koreans receiving jabs.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un held a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s politburo on Thursday, ordering a “strict lockdown” nationwide and the mobilisation of emergency reserve medical supplies.

KCNA reported: “The state epidemic prevention work shall be switched over to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system.”

State television showed Kim attending the politburo meeting wearing a disposable face mask. In past footage of such meetings or other events, everyone except the tubby tyrant wore a covering.

Up till now, North Korea had not formally confirmed a COVID-19 infection.

South Korea and US officials have said an outbreak in the isolated country cannot be ruled out as it had trade and in person exchanges with China before sealing its border early in 2020.

Kim has enforced strict quarantine measures including intra-province movements, and in July 2020 declared an emergency, imposing a three-week lockdown on Kaesong after a man who defected to the South in 2017 returned to the city showing Covid symptoms.

The WHO’s latest data showed 64,207 of North Korea’s 25 million people have received COVID-19 testing. All tested negative as of March 31.

North Korea had declined vaccine supplies from the COVAX sharing programme and the Sinovac Biotech vaccine from China, suggesting the vast majority of civilians may be unvaccinated.

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