The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that North Korea traditionally conducts military readiness exercises from December to March, but this year's exercises are slower to start and less extensive than in years past.
This seems a strange strategic decision, as military readiness must be of paramount importance to Pyongyang at a time when war with the US bloc seems more likely than it has in decades. The socialist regime is infamously cagey about the inner workings of their government, but analysts have suggested that they have toned down the exercises because they have no other choice.
North Korea's armed forces rely heavily on imported oil and petroleum, mostly from China and Russia. Both nations have complied with international sanctions levied against Pyongyang as a result of the rapid expansion of their nuclear weapon and missile programs against UN resolutions.
The sanctions were tightened most recently in early December, with North Korea only permitted to import 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum per year — compared to 3.6 million barrels before the sanctions.
At the beginning of January, two ships flying a Chinese and a Russian flag were apprehended, accused of smuggling oil into North Korea. The ships, believed to be privately owned, were taken as a sign that North Korea has become increasingly desperate for oil to keep their military machine running.
However, estimates about Pyongyang's reserves vary wildly. "I have seen various reports that suggest that the North has as little as four weeks' supply of oil and others that suggest they have stockpiles lasting a year or more," said Garren Mulloy, a defense expert and an associate professor of international relations at Japan's Daito Bunka University, told The Guardian.
In previous years, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has attended the military exercises as an observer — but he was nowhere to be found this year. In his New Year's speech, however, Kim showed no signs of blinking before the enormous economic pressure.
"We should always keep readiness to take immediate nuclear counter-attacks against the enemy's scheme for a nuclear war," Kim said. "The US should be aware that the North's nuclear force is reality, not a threat."
The international community has looked to the February Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, as a potential break in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea have agreed to march under the same flag during the games and diplomatic talks continue between the two nations.
The US military, meanwhile, has openly been preparing for war with the North. American leaders have stressed that military action is an option of last resort to put a stop to North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program — but they also refuse to take the option off the table.