North Korea displayed what appeared to be new long-range and submarine-launched missiles Saturday as part of a massive military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 105th anniversary of the nuclear-armed country’s founder.
The main focus of the festivities, which celebrated the birth of Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un, was the North’s growing missile arsenal and its improving capabilities.
The celebrations came amid soaring tensions with the U.S., which has diverted an aircraft carrier strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula in a show of force designed to send a message to Pyongyang.
The North, however, has remained defiant over calls by the U.S. and its allies for it to rein in its burgeoning nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Kim, wearing a Western-style suit, watched the parade from a dais with other top officials high above the crowds as rows of rifle-toting troops and a group of sword-wielding female soldiers marched through the square.
They were followed by tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and the highlights of the event: the submarine-launched missiles and several large transporter erector launchers (TELs) carrying missile-shaped canisters believed to hold a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile.
South Korean military officials said they believed the object inside was a new type of long-range missile.
“It’s presumed to be a new ICBM. It seems longer than the existing KN-08 or KN-14 ICBMs,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a military official as saying.
The KN-08 was first displayed during the anniversary parade in April 2012; the KN-14, believed to be a variation of the KN-08, was shown off in October 2015.
Some arms analysts have dismissed both as mere mock-ups.
There has been growing speculation that Pyongyang will conduct an ICBM test after Kim used a New Year’s Day address to claim that the North was in the final stages of developing such a weapon.
Saturday’s festivities also featured the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have an estimated range of 1,000 km (600 miles) and were shown off for the first time in a parade.
The Pukguksong-1 SLBM, which the U.S. calls the KN-11, was first displayed and tested in April 2016. Though that missile was believed to have exploded in midair after flying less than 30 km (18 miles), exhaust fumes that are typically representative of a solid-fuel engine were detected.
Solid-fuel missiles involve a much smaller fleet of support vehicles than liquid-fuel missiles and can be prepared for launch much more quickly. They are also mobile, making them much more difficult to hunt down.
The April 2016 test was followed by another last August that saw the missile fly 500 km into Japan’s air defense identification zone. Experts said that was likely a lofted firing, meaning it could have flown much farther, potentially putting South Korea and parts of Japan within striking distance.
Any deployment of an SLBM would complicate the ability of the U.S., South Korea and Japan to pre-emptively destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities by threatening a second strike. Land-based nuclear sites are easier to take out than ballistic missile submarines, which ensure that a retaliatory strike can be launched before they can be found and destroyed.
In February, the North conducted a test of the Pukguksong-2, or KN-15, an apparent land-based variant of the SLBM. That launch appeared to be timed to coincide with U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida.
David Schmerler, a researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said the parade was a chance for Pyongyang to show off various newly developed hardware.
He said that while the new, larger canister-launched missile systems could be mock-ups, the fact that the North was showcasing them highlighted the country’s ultimate goal of mastering an ICBM capable of striking the continental U.S.
“I would take this display as a sign of things to come,” Schmerler said, pointing to the development of the Musudan missile, which itself was first displayed as a mock-up that went through several permutations before having its first successful flight last June.
Schmerler also said the North’s decision to show off several Pukguksong-1 and 2 models may have been “an attempt to convey that they have them in significant numbers.”
“We used to see this with Scuds and Rodongs. … So it may be a message that their new solid-fuel missiles are going to play a larger role in their ballistic missile fleet.”
Saturday’s parade was staged amid soaring tensions with the United States, which has not ruled out military action to prevent the North from further developing its weapons programs.
North Korea remains technically at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce but not a treaty.
In a speech ahead of the parade, Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, touted the country’s achievements in its weapons programs while also blasting what he said were U.S. threats.
“If the United States launches provocations, we will instantly make a devastating attack and will respond to an all-out war for a full-scale war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack,” Choe said, according to media reports.
The North routinely threatens the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and the run-up to Saturday’s anniversary was no exception.
“All the brigandish provocative moves of the U.S. in the political, economic and military fields pursuant to its hostile policy toward the DPRK will thoroughly be foiled through the toughest counteraction of the army and people of the DPRK,” the official Korean Central News Agency said, citing a spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. DPRK is the acronym for the formal name of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Our toughest counteraction against the U.S. and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive,” the KCNA report added.
Earlier this month, the U.S. rerouted what Trump termed an “armada” of ships — a show of force that includes a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — to the waters off the Korean Peninsula.
The USS Carl Vinson-led carrier strike group, which was rerouted from planned port calls in Australia, was due to arrive in the waters soon.
Pyongyang has conducted more than 20 missile launches and two nuclear tests over the past year as it seeks to master the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States. It has also been making apparent preparations for its sixth atomic test, according to analyses of recent commercial satellite imagery.
Any nuclear or ICBM test would pose a fresh challenge to Trump, who has vowed that Pyongyang’s goal of possessing a nuclear-tipped long-range missile “won’t happen.”
Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said ultimately the North’s military muscle-flexing at the parade likely served one purpose: to voice its defiance to the U.S. and its allies.
The parade sends “a message to its own citizens and the international community that the regime is ‘powerful,’ has made ‘leaps’ in technological advancements and will not cave under U.S. pressure,” Kim said. “But it’s currently unclear if their new toys are just mock-ups and what exactly are inside them.”
Still, Kim said, “even if they are just mock-ups, they still give us an idea of Pyongyang’s missile-related goals and envisioned milestones.”
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