The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia is encouraged by a lull in North Korean weapon tests. It could end up disappointed.

People at a railway station in Seoul on Sept. 16, 2017, watch a local news report on a North Korean missile launch. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

In South Korea on Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov warned that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could become “apocalyptic” but added that he had one key reason to be hopeful: North Korea had not tested any weapons in more than two months.

“We greatly value that North Korea preserves the regime of silence for two months already, and Russia actively works to make sure that the current regime continues as long as possible,” Morgulov said at the opening of the annual Valdai Club Asian Regional Conference in Seoul, according to Russian news reports. The Valdai Discussion Club is a think tank based in Russia.

Moreover, Morgulov pointed toward this lull in activity as a positive sign for a “freeze for freeze” agreement with Pyongyang — a de-escalation plan favored by Russia and China. It calls for North Korea to freeze its missile and nuclear tests in return for the United States and South Korea suspending their annual joint military exercises.

“If Pyongyang’s demonstrated restraint over the past two months was met with similar reciprocal steps on behalf of the United States and its allies, then we could have moved to the start of direct talks between the United States and North Korea,” Morgulov said.

His statement reflects a rare burst of optimism in the ongoing standoff over North Korea's weapons program. Unfortunately, there's a worrying hole in the logic: North Korea's break in weapons testing may be seasonal, rather than strategic.

Crowds lined the streets of Pyongyang to cheer on the scientists behind North Korea’s latest nuclear test. (Video: Reuters)

Pyongyang's last recorded weapons test occurred 73 days ago, on Sept. 15. That launch, in which a missile was fired over Japan, capped a bout of activity that had heralded a number of technological developments in North Korea's weapons program, including the test of its most powerful nuclear bomb yet.

These tests were more noteworthy for their advancements than their frequency. Data compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ North Korea Missile Test Database shows that Pyongyang has conducted 19 missile tests in 2017. The number is large but still lags behind the number of tests last year, when 24 missiles were tested.

Crucially, the figures also show that since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, there has been a surge in missile tests — but only five tests total have taken place in the last quarter of each year.

The most likely reason for North Korea backing away from missile testing in the fourth quarter is that the regime has its attention on other priorities. Fall is the harvest season in North Korea, a major operation in a frequently food-strapped country that diverts many resources away from the weapons program. The Korean People's Army also enters its training cycle in winter, taking further energy away from the weapons program.

There have also been signs that North Korea's weapons program isn't completely dormant right now. U.S. government sources recently told the Diplomat that North Korean scientists had tested a new type of solid-fuel engine in October, raising the possibility that this technology could be used for ballistic missiles in the future.

Given these factors, many experts think it is only a matter of time before North Korea launches another missile or conducts another nuclear test. Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center who compiled data on seasonal changes in North Korea's missile testing, said last month that he wouldn't be surprised if there were one or two tests before the end of the year.

A full resumption may come in February, Cotton suggests. Notably, that time frame coincides with the beginning of the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea — a major sporting event that many fear North Korea could try to disrupt.

For Washington, the policy implications of this apparent seasonal lull are complicated. First, it would suggest that the Trump administration's hard-line policy on North Korea — full of talk of “fire and fury” and considerable economic and diplomatic pressure — can't be credited with the drop in weapons testing.

Secondly, it also complicates and may even contradict the hopes for a “freeze-for-freeze” policy advocated by Morgulov and others. If North Korea is stopping tests only temporarily, any proactive attempts by the United States to move toward rapprochement could end up looking foolish in hindsight.

The United States seems to already know this. In late October, the State Department's top North Korea specialist, Joseph Yun, reportedly told a private audience that if North Korea stopped nuclear and missile testing for 60 days, the United States would resume direct dialogue with it. The comments were noteworthy as they seemed to suggest an openness to dialogue with North Korea, if not quite an open embrace of Beijing and Moscow's plan.

But there was a big catch. U.S. officials said that any 60-day countdown for talks would have to wait until North Korea explains why it has stopped conducting tests. And Pyongyang hasn't offered any explanation publicly.

Cuban President Raul Castro hosted North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho Nov. 24, hoping to convince Pyongyang to stop its rapidly expanding nuclear program. (Video: Reuters)

More on WorldViews

North Korean insults to U.S. leaders are nothing new — but Trump’s deeply personal reactions are

Are we on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea? Probably not.

North Korea says Trump should be ‘sentenced to death’ for insulting Kim Jong Un