A North Korean missile is unlikely to streak across the sky Saturday, when the country celebrates the 75th anniversary of its ruling party, but observers expect them to roll out “something big” for a massive military parade marking the event in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.
The parade, less than a month ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election, will be a chance for nuclear-armed North Korea to showcase its growing arsenal, giving Washington and its allies in Tokyo and Seoul a glimpse of the new capabilities it has developed amid stalled denuclearization talks — and returning Pyongyang to the media spotlight.
In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned that he would “in the near future” reveal a “new strategic weapon” to the world while also declaring that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.
More than 10 months on, Kim may finally be ready to show his hand.
“The North Koreans have been holding a lot back that they are eager to show us,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a recent teleconference hosted by the Korea Society. According to Panda, the North Koreans could show off scores of solid-fuel missiles, including medium-range weapons capable of striking Japan.
“(North Korea) will parade those down at Kim Il Sung Square in a way they’ve never done before.”
Showing off new weapons systems at military parades has been a common practice for Pyongyang, especially during fifth or 10th anniversaries. And this year’s parade appears to be no exception.
According to North Korea-watching website 38 North, recent commercial satellite imagery shows that Kim Il Sung Square appears to have been secured for the military parade. Months of upgrade work on a bridge used by parade vehicles en route from the Mirim Parade Training Ground to the square that would strengthen it for heavy loads has been completed. Meanwhile, training has continued at the Mirim site, where garage-like structures have been built that could house transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) for the North’s largest missiles.
“North Korea appears to be preparing infrastructure to parade larger, heavier systems, and to display many more launchers than in previous years — indicating not just a qualitative increase in the threat, but also a quantitative one,” Bruce Perry, a former senior intelligence officer with the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command, and Markus Garlauskas, who served as the U.S. intelligence community’s top expert on North Korea, wrote in an analysis on the Atlantic Council website last week.
Satellite imagery taken Sept. 22 even caught a glimpse at the Mirim site of “a probable missile-related vehicle,” according to 38 North. It said that while the imagery resolution was insufficient to determine exactly what the vehicle was, its relative size and shape suggested it was likely a TEL “for a large missile … of sufficient size to carry a Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missile.” Analysts say the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which the North tested in November 2017, is capable of striking most of the continental U.S.
However, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo daily, citing unidentified sources, reported Sunday that U.S. and South Korean intelligence had spotted a new, larger ICBM at the North’s March 16 factory in Pyongsong, north of the capital, which is believed to produce large-scale trucks for the country’s military.
The report said officials believed the new missile, which could employ a new engine design tested in December, will be displayed in Saturday’s parade.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul has also joined this growing chorus, saying Wednesday that it was possible the North could unveil a new strategic weapon, such as a larger ICBM, in a bid to close ranks behind the ruling party after the regime fell short of its economic goals amid biting sanctions, a series of devastating typhoons and the global coronavirus pandemic.
Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North, said that using the parade to showcase new or existing systems or upgrades would be a way of demonstrating continued weapons development without having to engage in provocations such as flight testing. The North, she added, has in the past used similar parades to showcase its new missiles.
“So it’s not hard to imagine that Kim may use the upcoming parade to reveal the ‘new strategic weapon,’” she said.
In addition, the Kim regime could also be hoping to send a signal to the U.S. and its allies that it now possesses an enhanced ability to “shoot and scoot,” or quickly fire off its weapons and move its launchers to prevent them from being attacked, experts say.
Media reports have said that Kim ordered the mass production of around 70 TELs — including those designed to carry ICBMs — in February 2018, with much of the work being done at the March 16 factory.
Larger launcher numbers means greater odds of surviving a pre-emptive strike and a better ability to overcome missile defenses by firing salvos, according to Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
“A sufficiently rugged launcher can reload and fire for as long as it can survive and receive new missiles, but this sort of launcher can still only fire one missile at a time. Several launchers shooting at one time can ‘saturate’ defenses. They also don’t have to reveal their position until they shoot,” he said.
Pollack said that of the 91 garage-bay structures recently built at the Mirim site, 22 could possibly accommodate larger launchers.
“We don’t know exactly what will appear in the parade, but expect to see more ICBM-class launchers than North Korea has displayed in the past,” Pollack said.
If the North were to show off even a fraction of the TELs that could be in the 22 garage bays, this would be a dramatic rise in the number it is known to possess, which is currently thought to be between four and six. Such a move would compound already existing concerns about the abilities of the U.S. and its allies to track North Korean launches.
While much reporting has focused on how the North could use the parade to highlight a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, some say there is a more ominous — and realistic — option for the North: showing off ICBMs capable of carrying multiple warheads.
“I’m very concerned that North Korea could display a missile that has multiple warhead capabilities,” Garlauskas, currently a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Asia Security Initiative, told an online forum last month.
He said that a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) would be a “game-changer” that would have “huge implications for the threat that North Korea can pose for missile defense.”
A South Korean state-run think tank said in a report late last year that if Pyongyang felt nuclear talks with the U.S. had hit a wall, it might focus its efforts on creating MIRVs, which can employ several warheads and decoys, allowing the weapon to strike multiple targets and confound missile-defense systems. Analysts, however, are uncertain that the North has developed warheads small enough for such weapons, though they say this is only a matter of time.
For now, U.S. and Japanese officials say they are continuing to monitor the North Korean nuclear threat, and that all eyes will be on Kim Il Sung Square on Saturday — and beyond.
“We may see a (North Korean) provocation this month,” a high-ranking Japanese Foreign Ministry official said. “But we’re going to have to keep an eye on things until after the U.S. presidential election.”