TOKYO — North Korea has tested an unprecedented number of missiles this year as it expands its weapons program. Until recently, it usually boasted about each test in state media — sometimes with dramatic flair.
It takes a constellation of information from various sources to try to piece together what may be going on with North Korea. Its hyperbolic weapons announcements are always taken with a grain of salt, and cross-checked with information provided by the United States, South Korea, Japan, commercial satellite imagery, weather data and other sources.
But weapons analysts say it’s better than no information at all, especially when it comes to Pyongyang’s newest weaponry, as they gauge the regime’s progress in pursuing leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions.
“As analysts, we always look for more information, even if from state media, so there’s no question that the opacity in recent weeks has been detrimental,” said Ankit Panda, weapons analyst and a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The prolonged lack of disclosure since April may reflect the country’s struggle with a coronavirus outbreak, which it recently said had begun that month, some experts say. On May 12, North Korea announced its first positive case, though there were reports of cases near the North Korea-China border long before then. In the following weeks, North Korea warned of an “explosive” outbreak.
Since then, Kim has sought to emphasize officials’ response to the health crisis, especially given the concentration of people afflicted with covid-like symptoms in Pyongyang, where the country’s elites live.
“I believe the lack of disclosure is affected by the coronavirus outbreak. It is likely that by the end of April, North Korea’s leadership realized how severe its outbreak has become,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Pyongyang’s residents will likely not view Kim Jong Un’s missile launches in a positive light as they are dealing with the covid crisis.”
Park said this calculation may also be affecting the North’s decision on when to conduct its seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017. Intelligence officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan say North Korea has apparently completed preparations for the test, and is waiting for the right political timing. A nuclear test, typically detected by seismic monitors, would sharply increase tensions in the region and with the United States.
“It can’t conduct its seventh nuclear test quietly without revealing it. In addition to military calculations over when to conduct its test, there is also a political calculation” that is linked with the message Kim needs to send domestically, Park said.
While North Korea often releases incomplete information about weapons tests, it sometimes publishes photos and videos that help analysts make sense of their significance — for example, depending on whether Kim is reported to have personally overseen a launch.
Even when North Korea announced previous domestic crises, such as food shortages or devastating floods, it still often touted its weapons development through a military parade or propaganda about its tests, said Colin Zwirko, senior analytical correspondent at NK News, a Seoul-based North Korea monitoring website.
North Korea’s newfound restraint may also be a sign that it has been testing existing technology rather than trying out new developments, said Panda, the weapons analyst. According to the South Korean and Japanese governments, the tests Pyongyang conducted in May included several suspected short-range missiles, which the country has routinely launched this year.
When North Korea is ready to reveal a qualitatively new system, it will be sure to let the world know, he said.
“They’re also generally shifting toward much more frequent operational and developmental testing like we’d see in other military powers,” Panda said. "We should perhaps expect the higher tempo of testing to coincide with less publicity overall.”