North Korea unveils huge new ICBM at military parade
North Korea unveiled an array of new weapons at a monumental military parade carried out in the dead of night on Saturday — among them novel forms of ballistic missiles capable of being launched from a submarine and across the Pacific Ocean.
The parade, which intelligence officials in Seoul said went on from 12 to 3 a.m. early Saturday morning in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, was the culmination of months of preparations by the regime for the 75th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party, undertaken amid one of the worst economic situations the country has faced in decades.
Footage of the ceremony broadcast by Korean Central Television Saturday evening showed on display a host of new strategic weapons the regime had been developing for years, including what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile system known as the KN-23, a 600-mililmeter large caliber artillery gun and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) labelled as the Pukkuksong-4A.
The centerpiece of the event was a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that appeared to be much larger than Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 system — a weapon reportedly capable of reaching the continental United States.
The public debut of such an arsenal signaled to Washington months into a fraught stalemate in their denuclearization negotiations that Pyongyang’s priority remains to ensure the survival of its regime by any means possible.
That intent was made plain in North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s public address at the parade, in which he announced the induction of a war deterrent capable of containing threats from hostile powers, before adding that the North would never employ such means first without provocation.
“Our war deterrent, which is intended to defend the rights to independence and existence of our state and safeguard peace in the region, will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike,” Kim said, according to an English-language version of his speech carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“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.”
The vow to employ the weapons for defensive purposes only — and the omission of the term “nuclear” from their characterizations — appeared, however, to be attempts at toning down hostility ahead of incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election bid next month.
In line with this posturing, Kim also used his speech to relay a conciliatory overture to Seoul by expressing a “warm wish” to his “dear fellow countrymen in the south” that the Covid-19 pandemic comes to an end quickly so that the “day would come when the North and South take each other’s hand again.”
The remark surprised many in Seoul, where public opinion has been souring against the North due to its escalatory actions against South Korea throughout the year. The tone of Kim’s overture notably mirrored the rare apology he offered the South last month after a South Korean fisheries official was shot and killed by a North Korean maritime patrol in Pyongyang’s waters.
South Korea’s presidential office, the Blue House, on Sunday called on Pyongyang to work toward reducing hostilities in accordance to their military agreement signed in 2018, but added it would make relevant arrangements in light of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s apparent call for a restoration of inter-Korean ties.
Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of Kim’s address was just how emotional it was, with the dictator making rare expressions of contrition that highlighted the gravity of the North’s ongoing economic crisis.
Appearing to tear up on several occasions throughout the speech, Kim thanked his people 12 separate times for holding firm in spite of an unprecedented combination of hardships with the Covid-19 pandemic, “catastrophic natural disasters” and goods shortages resulting from ongoing international sanctions.
“Our people have placed trust, as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily,” Kim said. “I am really sorry for that.”
Kim’s admission of failure, unprecedented in a regime that regards its ruling Kim family as unassailable, appeared to be an attempt at remolding his image to that of a humble and devoted leader guiding the nation out of untold difficulties.
The tightly choreographed parade also featured thousands of troops marching in unison, accompanied by hosts of military equipment like tanks and planes, as well as fireworks to mark the occasion.
International scrutiny, of course, was on the North’s new SLBM and ICBM systems on display, which marked the first time Pyongyang has showed off such weapons publicly since the Hwasong-15 was paraded at a similar occasion in February 2018.
According to Reuters, a senior U.S. administration official said the North’s continued efforts to expand its nuclear and missile program as seen in the unveiling of its new ICBM was “disappointing,” and called on Pyongyang to return to negotiations toward its complete denuclearization.
The new ICBM, which was carried out on a 11-axel transporter erector launcher (TEL), appeared larger and more advanced than the Hwasong-15, analysts said, possibly making it the largest mobile ICBM in the world with a length of around 23 to 24 meters (75 to 79 feet).
Some South Korean experts speculated the rocket’s enlarged size may be owed to major changes made to its primary and secondary propulsion systems that were tested on two occasions in December last year at its Sohae testing center on the west coast. Though it has not yet been tested, the upgraded booster may allow the missile to travel further than the Hwasong-15, which is believed to have an estimated range of around 13,000 kilometers (8,078 miles) — enough to hit Washington or New York.
The weapon, which Pyongyang may call Hwasong-16, was also large enough to carry multiple reentry vehicles, experts said, allowing it to hit multiple targets with warheads and be effectively harder to intercept.
But unlike some earlier speculations, the new ICBM does not appear to use a solid propellant, which would have drastically reduced the preparatory phase of a launch. One South Korean military official who requested anonymity told the JoongAng Ilbo the new ICBM appeared to used liquid fuel like its older counterparts.
Similarly ominous was the presentation of Pyongyang’s new Pukkuksong-4A SLBM, an altogether new missile that may be equipped on the regime’s new 3,000-ton submarine disclosed in state media photographs in July last year, or an even larger submarine reportedly under construction.
The SLBM’s range remains unknown, but could surpass that of the North’s older SLBM model Pukkuksong-3 which has a maximum range of around 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers, experts said.
“The Pukkuksong-4A’s outward appearance looks similar to China’s JL-2 multiple warhead SLBM,” said Kwon Yong-soo, a former professor at the South’s Korea National Defense University, in reference to Beijing’s 7,200-kilometer range missile.
“If [the Pukkuksong-4A] has a similar size to Pukkuksong-3, then unlike the JL-2 it may be designed to target the U.S. territory of Guam.”
Experts also lavished attention on the North’s array of TELs, the chassis used to carry its new ICBM during the parade, as well as its collection of short-range ballistic missile weapons unveiled Saturday following over a year of provocative testing since May 2019, all of which showed the regime had continued to enhance its missile capabilities amid its talks with Washington throughout the last two years.
“North Korea continues to evolve as a “normal” nuclear weapons power, focusing on improving and augmenting its systems for survivability and penetrability,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea nuclear expert and political science professor at M.I.T., wrote on Twitter.
“No big surprises, but more diversity and improved capabilities. They aren’t giving them up.”
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]