North Korea
Kim Jong Un has vowed to strengthen North Korea's nuclear deterrent as talks with President Donald Trump over the country’s arsenal have stalled. Image Credit: AP

Seoul, South Korea: North Korea displayed what appeared to be its largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile during a nighttime military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday, but it was not immediately clear if the missile would work or was for show.

The North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has vowed to strengthen the country’s nuclear deterrent as talks with President Donald Trump over the country’s arsenal have stalled. The rollout of the weapon comes as Kim has struggled to keep his promises to strengthen his nation’s staggering economy.

The new ICBM appeared to be much larger than North Korea’s biggest, previously disclosed long-range missile, the Hwasong-15. The size of the new missile indicated that it might be able to fly farther and carry a more powerful nuclear warhead, South Korean and other analysts said, although it has never been flight-tested.

North Korea has been improving its missile and nuclear technologies despite Trump’s on-again, off-again diplomacy with Kim, and the display Saturday was likely an attempt to show that more advances are being made. But it was not immediately clear if the new missiles were real or were mocked-up versions.

War deterrent

“We will continue to strengthen the war deterrent, the righteous self-defense means,” against threats from “hostile forces,” Kim said during a speech at the parade, without citing the United States by name.

When North Korea test-launched the Hwasong-15 in late 2017, it claimed the missile could reach any part of the continental United States carrying a nuclear warhead. Although North Korea has conducted three ICBM tests, it remains unclear whether the country has the technology needed to protect a nuclear warhead during atmospheric reentry and deliver the weapon to its target.

South Korean officials did not immediately comment on the missile displayed Saturday. But they have long said, based on undisclosed intelligence, that North Korea was developing a more powerful ICBM.

In Washington, officials would not comment on whether the new missile was, in fact, more powerful than the North’s previous weapons.

But one U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity as the Trump administration continues to pursue diplomacy with Kim, said the show of force indicated that the North was “continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program” and called it “disappointing.”

Failing to live up ​to ​expectations

Kim dedicated much of his speech to thanking his people, as well as his military, for enduring “huge challenges and difficulties,” including living under sanctions even as the country temporarily closed its border to its only major trading partner - China - to try to keep the coronavirus from slipping into North Korea. He also apologized to his people for failing to live up ​to ​their expectations.

“I am really sorry for that,” he said, appearing to fight back tears. “My efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”

Kim’s emotional apology was “a shrewd way of placing blame on circumstances beyond his control, and deflecting attention from the enormous resources poured into nuclear weapons,” Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in an email.

Kim’s speech was notable for its lack of anti-American and anti-South Korean diatribes common in North Korean statements. Instead, he offered his “consolation to all those around the world” combating COVID-19. Kim had already sent a telegram wishing Trump an quick recovery.

North Korea had prepared for months for the military parade Saturday, the 75th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party.

The parade - which unlike earlier celebrations was held at night - was meant to lift morale after a difficult year that included devastating floods. Laden with spectacle, it featured fireworks and military planes firing flares in the night sky as columns of goose-stepping soldiers swore to “defend Kim Jong Un with our lives.” But the real highlight was an impressive array of artillery pieces, tanks, rockets and missiles.

Analysts noted what they suggested were Kim’s careful political calculations in deciding how to celebrate the party anniversary, which comes just weeks before the presidential election in the United States. By displaying an apparently more powerful ICBM, Kim seemed to demonstrate the North’s growing military threat to whoever wins the election.

But he also seemed to be hedging his bets, given what both he and Trump have called their special “personal relationship.” Kim declared a halt to all nuclear and ICBM tests before his first summit meeting with Trump, in Singapore in June 2018. Trump has called the moratorium one of his biggest foreign policy achievements.
By showing off - but not launching - a new ICBM, analysts said Kim appeared to want to avoid provoking Trump ahead of the election.

“The Kim regime is focused on domestic challenges and is waiting out the U.S. presidential election before starting another cycle of provocations and diplomacy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Parading a ‘new strategic weapon’ offers domestic political benefits without the risks of an internationally provocative missile test.”

No agreement

Kim became the first North Korean leader to meet a sitting United States president when he held his first summit with Trump in Singapore and agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But his second meeting with Trump, in 2019, collapsed without an agreement on dismantling the North’s arsenal or easing crippling sanctions.

In his 2020 New Year’s message, a defiant Kim said his country no longer felt bound by its self-declared nuclear and ICBM test moratorium and vowed to show the world a “new strategic weapon.” Until Saturday, no such weapon was displayed, as North Korea seemed preoccupied with fighting COVID-19 and extensive flood damage.

During his speech, Kim reiterated his claim that the country had no cases of COVID-19, and a large, maskless crowd gathered for the parade. Outside experts are skeptical about the claim.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said that the new ICBM seems to be a derivative of the Hwasong-15. But he said that its size indicates that it could carry a deadlier nuclear payload, potentially even multiple warheads.

“Despite North Korea being hammered this year by three typhoons, constant food insecurity issues, international sanctions and now threats from COVID-19,” Kazianis wrote in an email, “the Kim regime has shown the world once again its long-range missile program will continue to advance with each passing day.”