North Korea’s “Christmas gift” must have gotten lost in the mail.

A North Korean missile test that had been widely anticipated over the holiday didn’t occur, at least not yet.

But U.S. military surveillance aircraft — including RC-135 Rivet Joint and Cobra Ball jets based at Offutt Air Force Base — have been patrolling the skies near North Korea in recent days, according to aircraft spotters. So has a Georgia-based E-8C JSTARS airplane and an RQ-4 Global Hawk pilotless aircraft.

It’s not clear whether they are related to North Korea’s threat in early December to send the U.S. a “Christmas gift” if the Trump administration failed to restart stalled arms reduction talks. The military does not comment on reconnaissance flights.

The “Christmas gift” has widely been interpreted as referring to a rocket test — perhaps at the Sohae test stand, one of several sites where analysts have noted lots of recent activity.

That includes recent engine tests, the movement of trucks to and from the test site, and the clearing of snow from a launch pad and roads leading to it, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

“Sohae’s active. But what does ‘active’ mean?” Lewis said Thursday during a telephone interview with The World-Herald. “We’re all a little unsure. The natural thing to do is up your readiness.”

Aircraft spotters and monitors of public air traffic control have made note of multiple reconnaissance flights in recent days.

Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account with 58,700 followers that tracks military flights, noted Cobra Ball flights over the Sea of Japan — which separates Japan from the Korean Peninsula — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The job of the Offutt-based Cobra Balls is to watch and listen to missile launches in order to glean useful intelligence, a mission they have performed since the 1960s. They operate out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Two of the 55th Wing’s three Cobra Balls have been at Kadena since Dec. 20, Aircraft Spots reported.

The account also noted Offutt-based Rivet Joints flying over the Sea of Japan and the Korean Peninsula on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Rivet Joint crews fly with foreign-language specialists who monitor radio communications on the ground. At least two have been flying out of Kadena.

E-8C JSTARS and RQ-4 Global Hawks also have been flying over South Korea almost daily, Aircraft Spots said.

Meari, a North Korean propaganda site, has denounced the “constant surveillance,” according to a report Thursday by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

“We are closely watching hostile forces’ provocative schemes,” Meari said, as quoted in the Yonhap article. “They should know that our patience also has a limit.”

All four types of planes routinely monitor electronic signals from North Korea, said Robert Hopkins III, a historian of Air Force surveillance flights and former 55th Wing pilot. He recalls flying Christmas Day missions off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula during the Cold War, in anticipation of missile tests by the former Soviet Union.

“The increase in flights is not unreasonable given the (North Korean) ‘threat’ of a Christmas present,” he said in an email. He compared it to increased police presence if a synagogue were threatened.

“The cops aren’t the provocation,” he said. “They’re the response.”

Lewis said it’s not entirely clear whether the U.S. has actually stepped up surveillance of North Korea.

“It certainly seems different. But is that just because we’re looking?” he said. “It really is hard to know.”

Lewis attaches little significance to the lack of any missile tests on Christmas Day. He is certain that Kim’s pause in such tests is almost over.

“The North Koreans have made it clear: The moratorium is up,” he said. “Something is going to fly. It’s a matter of what, and when.”

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