North Korea's display of new missiles is worrying, analysts say
By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: April 15, 2017
TOKYO — North Korea put on a huge military spectacle Saturday to celebrate its founder's birthday, parading its series of new and technologically advanced missiles in front of Kim Jong Un, and in a defiant show of force in front of the world.
North Korea did not, however, carry out another nuclear test or ballistic missile launch, against widespread speculation that it would seek to celebrate Kim Il Sung's 105th birthday with a bang.
April 15 is the most important day in the North Korean calendar, and Kim Jong Un has celebrated his grandfather's birthday with great fanfare as a way to boost his own legitimacy as the successor to the communist dynasty.
North Korea presented two of its newest model missiles at the parade in Kim Il Sung Square on Saturday, including the submarine-launched ballistic type it successfully fired last year and the land-based version it launched last month.
"And there were a lot of them," said Melissa Hanham, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. "The signal that they're trying to send is that they are moving ahead with solid-fuel missiles."
North Korea has been working on solid fuel — which, unlike liquid fuel, can be preloaded into missiles — as a way to fire missiles quickly to avoid prior detection by satellites.
Analysts were working to identify all the missiles that were shown off on Saturday, many of which appeared to have new paint jobs or be variants of known missiles.
One of the missiles looked similar to the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea had included in previous parades. This missile has a theoretical range of about 7,500 miles, which is enough to reach all of the United States from North Korea, said Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review.
It also put two ICBM canisters, which protect solid-fueled missiles from the effects of the environment, on the trucks that had carried the ICBMs previously. One may have been a KN-14, another missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, although it has a slightly shorter range.
The trucks that carried the missile canisters were Chinese ones that have been exported to North Korea's Forestry Ministry but have shown up in military parades like this one.
Saturday's display was worrying, Hanham said.
"They have an indigenous tank system now, so they have more launchers, and they have solid fuel, which means they can launch a lot more of these things in quick succession without having to refuel," she said.
The overall message to the world was that North Korea was pressing ahead with its missiles and making technological progress.
The parade took place amid stern warnings from the outside world and mounting fears about some kind of military action in the region. China has been particularly vocal in warning both sides to remain calm.
The United States has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, and President Donald Trump has repeatedly tweeted that if China will not use its leverage to rein in North Korea, the United States will act.
Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Seoul on Sunday on the first leg of an Asia tour, and he will underscore Washington's strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and its determination to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Trump administration officials describe the situation as more dangerous than in the past, because of the progress North Korea has made in its nuclear weapon and missile programs and because of the hostility on both sides. But U.S. officials said no decision has been made about how to respond to any new test — nuclear or ballistic — by North Korea.
While officials do not rule out other actions, they also stress their desire to ensure that the situation does not escalate out of control. Pentagon officials denied recent media reports that the Trump administration is ready to launch a preemptive strike if North Korea appears to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
North Korea has a habit of fueling tensions to increase the rewards it might extract from the outside world if it desists. Previously, the North has agreed to return to denuclearization talks in return for aid or the easing of sanctions.
But with his approach, Trump is tearing up the old playbook of how to deal with North Korea, analysts said.
"This approach to North Korea is relatively new," said James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "The approach in the past has been very calculated."
That has gone out the window with talk about military options, he said. "We always knew all these options were there, but no one was bold enough to go down that path. It's a new approach."
Right now, Trump has some cards to play, said Kim of the Asan Institute.
"He might say: 'If you want one less battleship in the region, what are you going to give me?' " he said — a reversal of the usual situation, in which North Korea asks what it can get from its adversaries in return for changing its behavior.
The Washington Post's Simon Denyer in Beijing contributed to this report.