Though during the past two years, the denuclearization issue of North Korea raised temper high amid exchange of firry words between the American President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and raised fears of actions with possible unintended consequences including a conflict breaking out, it transpired that any effort to make Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons proved to be a mere will-o-the-wisp.
This came out demonstrably clear when North Korea celebrated its 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) by organising a massive predawn military parade on 10 October (all past parades were held during daytime hours) wherein it unveiled what appeared to be its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) along with other weapons, with Kim promising to build up the country’s “war deterrence”. Other weapons included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and North Korea’s version of Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile. It was the first military parade that the North held since 2018.
True to its reputation of controlling information leakage, foreign diplomats and international organisations in Pyongyang were debarred from attending the event and also were warned not to approach or take pictures of the event. Some analysts were quick to dub the missile displayed as “monstrous”.
What does it mean in the larger regional and global context? The first impression that one gets is that the much hyped summits in Singapore in June 2018 and again in March in Hanoi between Trump and Kim, both of which ended in disaster, proved to be mere photo opportunity that only catapulted Kim to international limelight. Without yielding to any of Trump’s demands, Kim still emerged as the winner by realising his ambition of sitting across the table with the leader of the world’s only super power as equals. Does it mean Trump was the loser? Answer could be both Yes and No. Analysts have varying opinions and interpretations. These also proved that North Korea is unlikely to give up ever its prized possession of enormous nuclear arsenals whose deterrence value it is unlikely to bargain for as it perceives them as the only guarantee for its survival.
When the new ICBM becomes operational, it would be the world’s largest road-mobile, liquid-fueled missile. Though it remains to be seen if the ICBM displayed in the parade would actually work, going by the past experience when Pyongyang showcased prototyped at parades and eventually tested them, the one displayed on 10 October would work when it became operational.
The new ICBM appears to be an advanced version of the Hwasong-15, Pyongyang’s most powerful tested missile. It remains unclear whether it is ready to be put the missile to the test anytime soon. While the Hwasong-15 tested on 29 November 2017 has the strike range to hit the US mainland, the new ICBM seems more focused on the payload. The new missile could deliver 2,000-3,500 kilograms of payload to any point in the continental US, greater than the 1,000 kilogram Hwasong-15 with an estimated range of 12,874 kilometres and capable of delivering any part of the continental US, which is why Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network told Nikkei Asia the ICBM as a “monster”. Pyongyang had showed off design models of earlier missiles before.
According to the 38 North, a US-based think tank focused on North Korea, the new missile was mounted on a transporter erector launcher with 22 wheels, indicating that it is longer than the Hwasong-15, which was carried by an 18-wheel TEL. The missile appears to be 25-26 meters long and 2.5-2.9 meters in diameter — about 4-4.5 meters longer and about 5 centimetres wider in diameter than the Hwasong-15. Besides the ICBM on display, North Korea also unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile called the Pukguksong-4, which appeared to be bigger than its predecessor the Pukguksong-3 and was test-fired in October in October 2019.
The North Korean leader who took centre stage at the parade sent a stern message during his 25-minute speech to the world and its perceived enemies and vowed to strengthen the country’s “war deterrence” to “deter, control and manage” threats from hostile forces, including their “aggravating nuclear threat”. Kim promised that the military deterrent would only be used in self-defence, and “will never be abused or used as a means for pre-emptive strike”. He did remark that “should anyone undermine our national security and mobilise military power against us, I will retaliate by using the most powerful offensive weapon at our disposal and in a pre-emptive manner”. Kim was careful in not mentioning the US in his address. However, to keep the world leaders guessing, he signalled a willingness to “join hands” with South Korea after the current pandemic subsides.
It transpires now that even when Kim was engaged in denuclearisation diplomacy with Washington in 2018-19 and exercised some restraints by not featuring ICBMs in public display, it continued to further developing ICBMs and the means to deliver them. Now Kim hopes to raise stakes for the future negotiations with the latest weapons. Even when the US goes through the process to elect the new president in November 2020, irrespective of whether Trump gets re-elected or there is a new person at the White House, Kim just wants to convey the message to the US that he is ready either to negotiate or provoke depending on what response he gets from Washington. By not actual testing but only showcasing its new military capabilities, Pyongyang did not overstep international red lines, at least for now.
As expected, the US expressed disappointment that North Korea continues to prioritise its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs. South Korea is equally alarmed and called an emergency meeting of its National Security Council to discuss the North’s military parade. By wishing South Korea in a conciliatory message a fast recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that the two Koreas should “join hands” after the current health crisis is over, Kim was sending a confusing message keeping his intentions close to his heart.
Besides the “new strategic weapons”, North Korea has three types of ICBMs in its possession – the Hwasong-13, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 and had sought to develop a multiple-warhead ICBM that can fly further and harder to intercept. That ambition seems now is fulfilled. The “new strategic weapon” seems to have been designed to carry multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing it to attack more targets and making interception more difficult. The North often tends to mark every fifth and 10th anniversary with large-scale events, such as military provocations, including missile launches and parade of troops, newly developed “strategic weapons” and other military hardware.
Kim remains an enigma. Despite exchanges of ugly words not in distant past and then agreeing for two summit meetings without any positive outcome but scoring points over his rival Trump, he choose the time just before the US Presidential election to unveil his latest “monster” weapons but also choose to send a letter to Trump offering his “sympathy”, a day after the Trump couple were diagnosed with the new coronavirus. He seemed to proclaim to the world that he maintains good relations with the US President. Seen from this perspective, Kim was keen to project the event before the global audience as a kind of festival, rather than a show of force in consideration of relations with the US and also to send confusing signals as demonstrated by his speech. This gesture did not deter a senior US administration official to express his disappointment who reminded Kim to negotiate with Trump to achieve a complete denuclearization. The fact that Kim resolved to continue to build national defence power and self-defence war deterrence but vowed not to use it pre-emptively makes no sense to international observers and analysts who would not easily forget Kim’s past behaviour. As if to shedding crocodile tears, Kim in his address to the party workers and military remarked: “I am ashamed that I have never been able to repay you properly for your enormous trust”.