Amid calls for the reunification of "all Koreans," North Korea has scaled back its annual winter military exercises—but likely not out of the goodness of Kim Jong Un's heart. US officials say international sanctions, particularly those restricting fuel imports, have taken a toll on the country. Possibly as a result of efforts to conserve fuel, military exercises usually scheduled for between December and March appear less extensive this year than in previous years, US officials tell the Wall Street Journal, pointing to fewer sightings of Kim at military training events this year than in previous years as one indicator. Though the sanctions aren't believed to have hugely limited North Korea's military power, a military analyst says "ground-force readiness" will be affected as "military units have to train to maintain their proficiency."
The top US commander in South Korea adds defections "in areas where we don't generally see them" suggest hardships among elite soldiers, while an "increase in executions, mostly against political officers who are in military units, for corruption" might indicate that North Korea is trying to keep its military "from deteriorating too quickly." It doesn't appear the sanctions are curbing North Korea's efforts to grow its nuclear weapons program, however, per the Journal. A military parade in Pyongyang will reportedly project strength ahead of the Winter Olympics, but pressure will continue to mount as the US evaluates ways to prevent North Korea from skirting sanctions with banned imports of fuel, US officials say. The US is also pressuring African countries to expel North Korean diplomats raking in foreign currency, per the Financial Times. (Read more North Korea stories.)