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The Nikkei View

Beware North Korea taking advantage of coronavirus chaos

Pandemic must not be catalyst for regional disorder

The three-week disappearance by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from the public scene has fueled much speculation regarding his health and highlighted how the COVID-19 outbreak may potentially destabilize the region. Japan, the U.S. and South Korea must not allow regional stability to fall to the wayside because of the pandemic.

Rumors that Kim Jong Un was in critical condition -- or even dead -- have been quelled for now by his appearance in the North Korean media. But questions remain on how well the world's major powers shared information and coordinated with each other on identifying the whereabouts of Kim, who is capable of launching nuclear weapons with the push of a button.

Rumors that Kim is in poor health continue to swirl, while questions remain as to why he chose not to attend the birth anniversary of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

Recent reports on North Korea only highlighted how bizarre the country's closed-off society is. The day after the latest Kim Jong Un photos were published, the South Korean military said the North fired several gunshots at a South Korean guard post near their de facto border. Although the shots may have been accidental, the action nonetheless entails the risk of escalating into an armed clash.

North Korea is currently building a facility large enough to house intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to U.S. think tanks and South Korea's intelligence agency. The country is also believed to be getting ready to launch a submarine capable of carrying ballistic missiles.

The problem is that the coronavirus outbreak has spread aboard American nuclear carriers deployed around the world, hurting the U.S. ability to deter North Korean weapons development and to respond quickly to emergency situations. In addition, Japan's planned deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile shield has been delayed due to issues with the preliminary studies.

North Korea is not the only military threat in the region. The Chinese navy sailed six vessels, including an aircraft carrier, between Japan's Okinawa and Miyakojima islands in late April. China Coast Guard vessels are entering the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu, more frequently than before. Japan's Air Self-Defense Force is scrambling jets against Chinese aircraft at a historically high pace, mobilizing aircraft over 150 times during the January-March period this year.

Immediately tracking every move by North Korea or China is no easy task, which is why neighboring countries must be prepared at all times. Close collaboration with the U.S. -- symbolized by the joint bilateral military drills -- is crucial for both Japan and South Korea. But equally essential is collaboration among friendly nations in the region, especially between Tokyo and Seoul. 

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