Tweet This

This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on August 29, 2017 and released on August 30, 2017 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS)

Tuesday, November 14 marked 60 days since North Korea’s most recent missile test. Earlier this year, between March and May, North Korea was launching an average of one missile every two weeks. Now after about two months, the silence seems deafening.

Can we credit the slow down to America’s policies working? Was there a diplomatic breakthrough with the regime? Or has Kim Jong Un seen the error of his ways and is abandoning or backtracking on his missile program? Probably not.

Read more on Forbes: A 'Big Three' Approach To North Korea

Instead, this is likely part of an annual slowdown in testing we’ve observed now in North Korea for several years.

A look back at missile testing in North Korea under Kim Jong Un demonstrates the trend. The table below depicts a quarterly breakdown of North Korea’s nuclear capable missile tests since 2012.

North Korea’s nuclear capable missile tests by quarter

A few things are clear from this. First, Kim Jong Un stepped on the gas pedal in 2014. In fact, Kim Jong Un has carried out more tests than his father and grandfather combined. Second, and more important to this topic, North Korea slows things down in the fourth quarter of every year. On average, we see about an 80% drop in tests from Q3 to Q4. Every so often North Korea will conduct a test in Q4, but that number is only a small fraction compared to past quarters.

Harvest season

But what then, explains this consistent drop? While difficult to say for sure, the most likely explanation we have is that North Korea’s resources are tied up in the harvest.

Workers tend to a field on the outskirts of Pyongyang on July 12, 2016. (Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea has a GDP about the size of Vermont’s but it has a population about 40 times larger. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and not a lot of resources to do it. For example, transporting missiles around the country takes a lot of gas -- gas that could instead be used to fuel trucks transporting harvested food instead. Satellite images of North Korean military bases almost always show fields full of crops nearby. During harvest the soldiers working those bases have to go out and help collect that food.

This might feel like a surprisingly benign explanation, but it really illustrates the constraints Kim Jong Un has to operate under. After all, the U.S. doesn’t slow down its military operations for the harvest.

We tend to think of North Korea’s missile program as having the full backing of the regime and that it dumps unlimited resources into the program. While the former is probably true, the latter isn’t. The scarcity of resources within North Korea means the regime has to be extremely careful how it allocates them and this time of the year especially. After all, you can't have a missile program if all your rocket scientists are near-starvation.

The regime has a lot to prove

This image made from video aired by North Korea's KRT on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017 shows a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting soldiers during what Korean Central News Agency called a "target=striking contest" at unknown location in North Korea. (KRT via AP Video)

Kim Jong Un would probably love to continue further flight testing his missiles. The regime still has a lot to prove and knows it.

North Korea’s new IRBM and ICBM, premiered only a few months ago, both require further flight tests to establish their reliability and show the outside world that they should be taken seriously. That they are not doing so suggests some sort of structural constraint that impacts the regime’s missile program around the same time every year.

Read more on Forbes: The Evolution Of North Korea's Ballistic Missile Program

Whether that’s the harvest or not (North Korea, being a totalitarian dictatorship hasn’t exactly provided an explanation for this), the annual drop off in testing likely isn’t a coincidence. It’s held up so far this year despite numerous provocations by the U.S. (like parking three carriers off the coast), which in the past, the regime has responded with missile tests and military exercises of its own.

The tests will resume

If this year and last year are anything to go by, North Korea will kick off its annual testing cycle again in February. We could see a launch or two between now and then but we likely won’t see a return to bi-weekly missile launches like we saw earlier this year until Spring 2018.

Until then, we shouldn’t assume that this pause is because our policies are succeeding. After all, whatever the cause of this slow down, it’s been occurring since before our current policies were in place. Given the stakes, a wrong or inaccurate assumption could lead to disaster.

Instead we should use this time to try and establish a dialogue with the regime and try and otherwise open talks. It’s pretty difficult to have talks with North Korea normally -- doubly so when they’re launching missiles every other week. This pause could allow the U.S. to engage with the regime when things somewhat more relaxed. The slowdown could also give the U.S. and its allies a chance to better coordinate their policies and try and further contain North Korea in the relative peace of not having to constantly jump from one crisis to the next.

If we are going to do something though, we need to move quickly. This pause won’t last forever.