Why has North Korea stopped bragging about its missile tests?

TOKYO — North Korea has tested an unprecedented number of missiles this year as it expands its weapons program. Until recently, he usually bragged about every test in state media — sometimes with a dramatic twist.

But since April, this information has dried up. North Korea has stopped sharing details, photos and videos of the half-dozen missile tests it has conducted since then, including that of a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, as it develops long-range weapons that could reach the east coast of the United States.

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 images, weather data and other sources.

But weapons analysts say it’s better than no information at all, especially on new weapons from Pyongyang, as they assess the regime’s progress in pursuing leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions. .

“As analysts, we are always looking for more information, even if it comes from state media, so there is no doubt that the opacity of the past few weeks has been detrimental,” said analyst Ankit Panda. in Weapons and Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie. International Peace Endowment.

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The prolonged lack of disclosure since April may reflect the country’s battle with a coronavirus outbreak, which some experts said recently said it began that month. On May 12, North Korea announced its first positive case, although cases had been reported near the North Korea-China border long before that date. In the following weeks, North Korea warned of an “explosive” outbreak.

Since then, Kim has sought to highlight officials’ response to the health crisis, especially given the concentration of people 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 serious its epidemic had become,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The people of Pyongyang are unlikely to see Kim Jong Un’s missile launches in a positive light as they deal with the covid crisis.”

Park said that calculation could also affect the North’s decision on when to carry out its seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017. Intelligence officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan say that North Korea has apparently completed preparations for the test, and is waiting for the right political moment. A nuclear test, usually detected by seismic monitors, would greatly increase tensions in the region and with the United States.

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“He cannot quietly conduct his seventh nuclear test without revealing it. In addition to the military calculations on when to perform his test, there is also a political calculation” that relates to the message Kim needs to send nationally, Park said.

While North Korea often releases incomplete information about weapons tests, it sometimes releases photos and videos that help analysts understand their significance — for example, whether Kim personally oversaw a launch.

Even when North Korea announced past domestic crises, such as food shortages or devastating floods, it still often touted its weapons development through a military parade or through propaganda about its tests. said Colin Zwirko, senior analytical correspondent at NK News, a northern newspaper based in Seoul. Korea monitoring website.

North Korea’s new restraint may also be a sign that it has been testing existing technology rather than trying new developments, said Panda, the weapons analyst. According to the South Korean and Japanese governments, tests carried out by Pyongyang in May included several suspected short-range missiles, which the country has launched regularly 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 are also moving towards much more frequent operational and development testing, as we would see in other military powers,” Panda said. “Perhaps we should expect the higher pace of testing to coincide with less publicity overall.”

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