Nuclear-armed North Korea unveiled a massive new missile over the weekend that some analysts believe could carry enough warheads to overwhelm existing missile defenses. But is this “new strategic weapon,” as North Korea has labeled it, merely a political ploy to increase Pyongyang’s leverage with Washington after next month’s U.S. presidential election?
Coming amid deadlocked denuclearization talks between the two countries, the rollout of the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a military parade Saturday marking the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party follows a time-tested pattern by Pyongyang as it seeks to gain the upper hand in negotiations.
But Andrew O’Neil, an expert on the Koreas and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said that while showcasing the weapon was certainly “a symbolic statement designed to rattle U.S. confidence close to an election and potentially raise the stakes so the U.S. will review sanctions,” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “is the real deal” when it comes to new missiles and his nuclear buildup.
Pre-recorded video of the nighttime parade showed the weapon — said by experts to be the world’s largest liquid-fueled missile — being carried through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square on a transporter vehicle with 22 wheels, larger than anything previously displayed by North Korea.
Eagle-eyed analysts quickly pointed out that the new missile, which was the final weapon shown off in the rare nighttime parade, was very likely designed to carry multiple warheads in independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) — a view echoed by Tokyo on Monday.
“We are aware that some of the new missiles may be difficult to deal with using our conventional tools. We will continue to strengthen our comprehensive air and missile defense capability to enable us to deal with increasingly diverse and complex threats,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a news conference.
“We will continue working closely with the United States and others to gather and analyze information on this matter as necessary and maintain maximum surveillance efforts,” he added.
Japan is currently conducting a review of its national security policy after scrapping plans in June to introduce the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore missile defense system, after a technical issue deemed too costly to fix was uncovered.
Japan is examining three sea-based plans in place of the land-based system, which had been aimed at protecting the country from the threat posed by North Korean missiles.
“Clearly, the North Koreans are thinking about how to counter the U.S. missile defenses,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute. “It’s always cheaper to flood such defenses with warheads and penetration aids” than for the U.S. to add missile interceptors.
Experts say that one ICBM with three to four warheads could require the U.S. to spend roughly $1 billion on 12 to 16 interceptors to defend against each missile.
O’Neil called the prospect of a bigger North Korean ICBM with more warheads “bad news” for Japan and other U.S. allies in the region.
“The greater number of targets North Korea can strike in the continental United States with nuclear weapons, the more reluctant U.S. planners will be in standing up to North Korean coercion in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Although it is unclear if the missile displayed is, in fact, an actual weapon or a mock-up, as the North has in the past displayed at parades, experts advised against underestimating Pyongyang’s capabilities, including the new missile.
“It’s important to remember that many observers in the past have discounted Pyongyang’s capacity to enhance the range and payload capabilities of its missile forces only to be proved wrong when North Korea successfully flight-tests new systems,” said O’Neil.
“We often forget that North Korea has one of the most sophisticated missile programs of any country in the world,” he added.
Saturday’s parade, the first to showcase North Korea’s most powerful weapons since tensions cooled between Pyongyang and Washington in 2018, also saw Kim deliver a 25-minute speech focused mainly on his domestic audience. Still, he did offer a hint at what could be in store for Washington and its allies in Tokyo and Seoul after the Nov. 3 U.S. election.
In the speech, Kim vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal, saying North Korea’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 White House framed the move as another setback for the stalled denuclearization talks.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is currently facing a tough re-election bid against his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, had hailed the talks as a significant breakthrough, meeting with Kim three times.
However, the two sides have failed to follow through on a vague agreement during their historic first summit in Singapore in 2018, remaining at odds over sanctions relief and how exactly plans for the North relinquishing its nukes would proceed.
“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.
Some experts, however, remain convinced the North will never give up its weapons, and Pyongyang is widely believed to have pressed on with the development of its arsenal throughout the nuclear negotiations.
In January, Kim Jong Un declared that his country was no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.
With this in mind, some observers believe Kim may have used Saturday’s missile unveiling to lay the foundation for a return to actual launches in the near future, in a bid to test the next U.S. leader.
“I think he’s sending a message to both Trump — and Biden — that North Korea will remain a nuclear weapons state, and the implication with this missile is that a future crisis may emerge for whomever is in the Oval Office after Jan. 20, if North Korea tests the weapon,” said Davis.
“The nuclear threat isn’t going away.”