- After averaging launches every 14 days earlier in the year, North Korea went 74-days before launching its latest missile early Tuesday morning.
- The break was probably caused by North Korea’s need to focus on addressing food shortages during harvest season.
- North Korea’s fuel and military personnel are limited in resources, and may be re-routed for harvest work during autumn months.
North Korea’s need to feed its people is likely the reason behind the regime going nearly two and a half months without a missile launch. In a country plagued by food shortages, North Korea may reroute its limited resources – including fuel and military personnel – in autumn to take full advantage of the harvest season.
While some pundits thought North Korea’s quiet launch schedule in October and November might indicate its willingness to calm tensions in the interest of potential diplomatic overtures, experts think it is part of a larger pattern.
Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power, only five of North Korea’s 86 missile launches have occurred between October and December.
Shea Cotton, a North Korean missile expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Business Insider he believes the lull is due to the harvest season because it “coincides with the slowdown we usually observe” and also requires large amounts of resources.
“Naturally we can’t say for sure why we see this, the harvest just appears to be the best candidate right now. I’m not suggesting exactly that North Korea sends its rocket scientists out into the field to swing a scythe, more that it takes a lot of resources to gather up all the crops, just as it takes a lot of resources to move everything into place to do a missile test.”
North Korea’s economy is about as large as that of the US state of Vermont, but its population is 40 times larger, said Cotton.
“That’s a lot of mouths to feed and not a lot of resources to do it with,” he said.
North Korea has a particularly finite number of resources
One of those finite resources is people, which in turn limits the number of crops that can be generated amid harsh conditions. So each autumn, Pyongyang – where temperature highs linger below freezing – sends soldiers into rural areas to help with the harvest.
Once crops are picked they need to be transported, which requires fuel, another finite resource.
“Moving trucks around with missiles on them takes fuel, moving trucks around with crops also takes fuel. Choices have to be made,” said Cotton, who also built the North Korea Missile Test Database, told Business Insider.
Fuel is also likely conserved during the latter months of each year as it will need to be used for annual military training that starts each December.
Sanctions probably made an impact as well
The UN also tightened sanctions on fuel to North Korea earlier this year, which may also have a flow-on effect. In September, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there is evidence North Korea is experiencing a fuel shortage.
With less fuel available this year, its possible that North Korea had to carefully allocate its resources over the last 74 days more carefully than before.
“I could imagine the sanctions have exacerbated this year’s resource allocation troubles,” said Cotton. “Without gas there’s a lot you can’t do. North Korea’s missiles themselves don’t need gas or diesel to fly, but the trucks that drive them around definitely do.”
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