North Korea flexes its muscles with new ICBM ahead of US election
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s introduction of a suspected new intercontinental ballistic missile during a massive military parade this weekend sent a warning that its nuclear weapons program is advancing amid stalled talks with the United States.
Leader Kim Jong Un didn’t mention Washington in a half-hour speech before the weapons began to roll out during the parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the communist state’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Occasionally tearing up, he focused on shoring up domestic unity in the face of hardships this year, including the coronavirus and typhoons that have caused major flooding.
Kim, wearing a gray suit and tie, vowed to continue efforts to build up his country’s arsenal while insisting it was for defense and not targeting any specific country.
“Our war deterrent … will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike,” he said after entering the podium to roars from the crowd on Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square as the clock struck midnight on Saturday.
“But if any forces infringe upon the security of our state and try to use military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them,” he added.
Show of force The display of military might, which came less than a month before the U.S. presidential election, showed that North Korea remains a nuclear threat while stopping short of triggering a response from President Donald Trump, experts said.
“Pyongyang displayed a tremendous number of military systems, most notably a new ICBM. However, Kim Jong Un’s speech was not threatening to the United States,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy chief now at the Heritage Foundation.
“The clear message was that, counter to U.S. claims, the North Korean nuclear threat has not been solved.”
Trump has claimed his diplomatic efforts with North Korea, including three unprecedented meetings with Kim, were a key foreign policy success. He tweeted at one point that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
Negotiations collapsed as the two sides were unable to agree on the North’s demands for sanctions relief in exchange for incremental steps toward disarmament.
Kim has expressed frustration over the deadlock, announcing in December that his regime was lifting a self-imposed suspension on nuclear and long-range missile tests and would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon.”
What’s next? Jenny Town, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson Center, said the new ICBM was obviously that weapon.
The next step would be to test it, but Town said that was not likely until early next year since the North Koreans will want to pressure a reelected Trump administration to return to negotiations or test Joe Biden if he wins.
“They’ll wait and see what the messaging is like in those first couple of months and then decide what’s in their best interest,” she said in a telephone interview.
The parade began late Friday, a departure from past parades that were held in the morning. North Korean state television aired a taped broadcast Saturday evening.
As a military band played, goose-stepping troops marched in unison followed by apparently new battle tanks and other armored vehicles, rocket launchers and a broad array of missiles.
Nobody wore masks or maintained social distance, underlining Kim’s claim that North Korea has not had a single case of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
North Korea sealed its border and issued shoot-to-kill orders after the virus first appeared in neighboring China late last year, but experts have expressed skepticism that the communist state has escaped the pandemic.
New advances The new, liquid-propellant ICBM — which many said may be the largest road-mobile missile — appeared to be a derivative of the Hwasong-15, the last long-range missile tested by North Korea in 2017 before Kim began engaging in diplomacy with Trump.
“North Korea can already range all of the continental U.S. down to Mar-a-Lago and beyond so one would think they wouldn’t need a larger system, but a larger system equals a larger payload,” Klingner said. Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s resort in Florida.
The increased size, which required a 22-wheel launcher, could enable the missile to carry multiple warheads or penetration aids to evade missile defense systems.
Klingner said the new launcher suggested that North Korea has developed the capability to build its own transport vehicles instead of relying on previous versions imported from China.
“That’s a worrisome development because the more missiles they can send out to the field the more effective a first strike as well as retaliatory strike capability North Korea has,” he said.
North Korea also trotted out an advanced solid-propellant submarine launched ballistic missile dubbed the Pukguksong-4 as well as improvements in equipment used for conventional warfare.
While skeptics suggested the missiles may have been mockups, the North made clear it’s moving ahead with development.
Kim, who took control of the family dynasty after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, appeared emotional as he praised soldiers deployed to assist in flood recovery and “anti-epidemic” efforts after a year of hardship.
He thanked all of his people for remaining healthy, “without any one of them having fallen victim to the malignant virus.”
In an olive branch to South Korea, Kim said he hoped the health crisis “would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when the North and South take each other’s hands again.”
South Korea expressed concern Sunday over the new weaponry and urged the North to commit to past promises to disarm.
The presidential office also “emphasized that various accords aimed at preventing armed clashes and war between the South and the North should be kept at any cost.”