North Korea used an unusual predawn military parade Saturday to show off a massive new intercontinental ballistic missile, with the U.S. calling the display “disappointing.”
The parade marking the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party also featured an emotional speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in which he urged the country to remain firm as it grapples with “huge challenges” spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of devastating typhoons and a tough U.S.-led sanctions regime over his nuclear program.
But the new long-range missile, which appeared to be based on an earlier weapon known as the Hwasong-15, stole the show, rolling through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square on a transporter vehicle with 22 wheels, larger than anything previously displayed by the North.
In showing off what Kim had apparently described as his “new strategic weapon,” as well as his other longer-range missiles, the regime showcased its most powerful weapons in a military parade for the first time since tensions cooled between Pyongyang and Washington in 2018.
While the military parade and weapons displayed spoke volumes about Kim’s intent, analysts said his 25-minute speech was far more tame in comparison.
In it, Kim did not mention the U.S. or its sole ally, China, instead devoting much of its focus to his domestic audience as he stuck to his script of refraining from criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Lamenting the North’s struggles this year, Kim appeared to shed tears — as many in the crowd did the same — in a heavily edited video aired on state television.
In it, Kim, wearing a gray Western-style suit in place of his usual Mao outfit, thanked his military for persevering amid the pandemic and other challenges.
“How many people have made devoted efforts overcoming harsh circumstances this year so as to bring about and defend this glorious moment of today?” he said, according to an English readout of his speech.
“No one would approach their patriotic and heroic devotion without shedding tears of gratitude,” he added.
Despite being held amid the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic, no masks were seen on those both in the parade or in the viewing section. North Korea has said that no cases of the deadly COVID-19 virus have been found in the country, which essentially sealed its border early this year — a point reiterated by Kim.
Some analysts have disputed Kim’s claim of zero COVID-19 cases as almost assuredly untrue.
The North Korean leader also used the speech to deliver a thinly veiled threat less than a month ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election of what may be in store for Washington and its allies in Tokyo and Seoul if he fails to get what he wants in deadlocked nuclear negotiations.
Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal, saying the North’s “military capability is changing in the rate of its growth and in its quality and quantity.”
“We will continue to strengthen the war deterrent … so as to contain and control all the dangerous attempts and intimidatory acts by the hostile forces, including their sustained and aggravating nuclear threat,” he said, adding that its nuclear weapons “will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike.”
“But, if, and if, any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them,” Kim said.
The Trump administration registered its disappointment with the moves later Saturday.
“It is disappointing to see the DPRK continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program,” a senior Trump administration official told The Japan Times on condition of anonymity. DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The United States remains guided by the vision President Trump and Chairman Kim set forth in Singapore and calls on the DPRK to engage in sustained and substantive negotiations to achieve complete denuclearization,” the official added, referring to a vague agreement reached by the two leaders during their historic first-ever summit in the city state in 2018. At the Singapore summit, Trump promised Kim that the U.S. would provide security guarantees to the North in exchange for the “complete” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The mercurial U.S. leader, who is currently facing a tough re-election bid, met with Kim twice more, but the two sides have failed to follow through on the agreement, remaining at odds over sanctions relief and how exactly plans for the North relinquishing its nukes would proceed.
Some experts, however, remain convinced the North never intended to give up its weapons and Pyongyang is widely believed to have pressed on with the development of its arsenal throughout its nuclear negotiations with Washington.
In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned that he would soon 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 ICBM tests.
Showing off new weapons systems at military parades has been a common practice for Pyongyang, especially during fifth- or 10th-year anniversaries. And this year’s parade was no exception.
While much of the focus in the run-up to the parade had focused on how the North could use it to highlight a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, some say the more ominous — and realistic — option for the North was showing off ICBMs capable of carrying multiple warheads.
While it’s unclear if the new ICBMs displayed Saturday were such weapons, some experts said that could be the message the North was attempting to convey.
“The North may want to be able (or to be seen as able) to deliver a much larger payload to anywhere in the U.S.,” rocketry experts Vann H. Van Diepen and Michael Elleman wrote in a paper Saturday for the North Korea-monitoring blog 38 North.
“In terms of larger payloads, the North may be working toward developing multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs),” the paper said.
It said that while the North has not demonstrated a militarily useful MIRV capability, which it called “technically demanding,” it might instead first deploy nonindependently-targetable multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs), much like the U.S., Soviet Union and others did.
“Even in this case, the North might want more payload capability to deploy more or larger MRVs,” the paper added.
The bigger payload capacity could also highlight a desire to use more decoys to spoof U.S. missile defenses than is possible with its existing missiles.
“Alternatively, the North may have decided that it wanted to possess or portray the capability to deliver a ‘super heavy’ single large thermonuclear RV against U.S. cities for political or deterrent effect,” it added.
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.
Markus Garlauskas, who served as the U.S. Intelligence Community’s top expert on North Korea, said during an online forum last month 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.”
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.
Ultimately, the message the North could be trying to convey is that its nuclear weapons are here to stay, said Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT.
“Big takeaway from the parade: North Korea continues to evolve as a “normal” nuclear weapons power, focusing on improving and augmenting its systems for survivability and penetrability,” Narange wrote Saturday on Twitter. “No big surprises, but more diversity and improved capabilities. They aren’t giving them up.”