North Korea sent a simple message at the military parade last week to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party: Kim Jong Un’s commitment to his nuclear arsenal is unflagging and he puts no stock in accommodating South Korean President Moon Jae-in or his “special relationship” with U.S. President Donald Trump. North Korea is an aggrieved state that wants to be able to unleash mass destruction on neighbors and adversaries. Alarming as that capability appears to be, it is even more troubling given Pyongyang’s disregard for international laws and norms. Kim is showing the world that he considers himself free to act as he likes and attempts to hold him accountable can be met with extraordinary violence.
North Korea’s messenger last week was new military hardware. On display during the grand parade was a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), mobile missile transporters and a massive intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The SLBM and the transporters underscore the regime’s determination to ensure that it has a credible deterrent. Putting missiles to sea or being able to hide them on land ensures that weapons can survive an attack and be available to punish an aggressor.
Ever the showman, Kim left the best for last: A “monster” ICBM closed the parade. The missile trundled through the streets on an 11-axle vehicle, making it one of the largest road-mobile, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles ever made. The Hwasong-15, North Korea’s previous largest ICBM, has a range estimated at 12,800 km, and thus capable of hitting any part of the continental United States. The new missile’s size indicates it is designed to either carry multiple nuclear warheads or penetration aids to confuse radars. Both options are intended to defeat U.S. missile defense systems.
The new weapon systems that were on display last week are only the part of a relentless nuclear modernization program that Pyongyang has chosen to show the world. In addition to the public tests of short and medium-range missiles, U.N. experts and Western intelligence agencies believe that North Korean is churning out enough fissile material to build as many as seven nuclear bombs a year; speeding up the capacity to make weapons; miniaturizing components (to be able to put more warheads on a missile); and building more and more secure facilities to protect those weapons. An extensive illicit international network continues to facilitate North Korean efforts to acquire parts and components it needs.
Pyongyang has refrained from the most provocative actions — a long-range missile launch or a nuclear test — so that Kim can continue his diplomatic courtship of Trump and keep China and Russia on his side. Experts believe, however, that the country is preparing for a quick resumption of missile tests to step up pressure on other countries to resume negotiations with the North on its terms.
The North Korean government insists that its nuclear arsenal is a deterrent intended for self-defense; Kim Jong Un explained in a speech before the parade that it is not aimed “at anyone specific.” That is laughable. The target is clear — the ally of the governments in Tokyo and Seoul that is located less than 12,500 km away, well within the radius of that new monster missile.
These new capabilities have little direct impact on Japan, however. This country has been threatened by the North’s medium- and intermediate-range missiles for years. The new weapons are a danger nonetheless: They are intended to undercut the deterrent extended to Japan by the U.S. The threat of North Korean retaliation against the American homeland aims to prevent Washington from honoring its treaty commitments and come to Japan’s (or South Korea’s) defense if it is attacked.
In his speech, Kim also tearfully apologized for failing the North Korean people, explaining that “my efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their lives.” He was acknowledging the hardship created by economic mismanagement, sanctions imposed by the U.S and the U.N., the COVID-19 outbreak that forced the closing of borders with China, the country’s main trade partner and damage caused by flooding last summer.
The prospect of economic hardship is worrisome. North Korea has demonstrated that it will do anything it can to overcome those difficulties. Illegal activities to generate revenue earned it the label of “the Soprano state,” a reference to the fictional organized crime family that was a hit TV show in the U.S. two decades ago. A nuclear capability will likely only embolden Pyongyang to undertake more illegal activities — counterfeiting, hacking, smuggling, weapons sales — to earn income. Trying to hold it accountable for misbehavior is exactly what the North would consider an act that infringes “on the rights to independence of our state” and would merit a response.
Practically neighbors, Japan nevertheless watches developments from afar. Tokyo has been cut out of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang and is the only member of the former six party talks to not meet with Kim. The absence not just of progress but contact is one of former Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s greatest diplomatic failures — and a legacy that looks set to continue. North Korea’s new weapons show a fierce determination to set the terms of diplomatic engagement and there is little indication that other nations have a strategy to change that grim reality.
The Japan Times Editorial Board