At a huge military parade, Kim Jong Un spoke softly but flaunted a big new missile

  • In another huge military parade this month, North Korea showed off an array of weapons, including a huge new intercontinental ballistic missile.
  • In contrast with the ominous weapons on display, Kim Jong Un's speech was remarkably subdued, even conciliatory at times.
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A massive military parade in North Korea last weekend was arguably the most hotly anticipated event in the country this year, but its organizers still managed to take viewers and analysts by surprise.

In a departure from previous daytime processions, the parade was conducted in the pre-dawn hours of October 10, while most of the country slept, with an edited version broadcast on state TV in the evening.

In typically dramatic fashion, North Korea's young dictator, Kim Jong Un, kicked things off with an emotional 25-minute speech, as onlookers cheered and wept. The meticulously choreographed affair then featured fireworks, a flyover by fighter jets and goose-stepping soldiers marching in formation through a brightly lit Kim Il Sung Square, in central Pyongyang.

Held to commemorate the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea 75 years ago, the parade was an opportunity for North Korea to project strength to domestic and foreign audiences as it copes with crises on multiple fronts, from natural disasters to punishing economic sanctions to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was also the regime's first chance to showcase its new weaponry since talks with the United States over its nuclear program broke down last year.

Numerous improvements in its military capabilities were on display, from small arms and rocket launchers to armored vehicles and an air defense radar system. The finale was the vaunted "new strategic weapon" that Kim had promised to unveil last December: four road-mobile liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles that experts believe are the largest of their kind in the world.

These missiles have never been tested, but they are significantly wider than the last ICBM that North Korea successfully launched, in November 2017. That one, called the Hwasong-15, is estimated to have a range of more than 8,000 miles, allowing it to deliver a single nuclear warhead to any target in the mainland United States.

Why build an even bigger missile, then? Many military analysts believe the design of the new "Hwasong-16" ICBM is intended not to increase its range, but to carry multiple reentry vehicles, each with its own nuclear warhead. North Korea has yet to demonstrate this capability, which only a handful of advanced nuclear states are known to possess, but it would be a logical next step for its missile program.

Melissa Hanham, the deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network, wrote recently that having multiple reentry vehicles would increase North Korea's chances of being able to overwhelm US missile defenses, "because for each incoming warhead, multiple interceptors need to be launched."

Almost as worrying as the missiles themselves were the new 11-axle trucks that were used to carry them. Technically known as transporter-erector-launchers, or TELs, these vehicles are a prized commodity for North Korean military planners. Whereas missiles launched from static locations are vulnerable to being spotted by satellites or spy planes and destroyed, TELs can be used to conceal and disperse an arsenal.

Until last weekend's parade, Pyongyang was only known to possess a total of six TELs capable of carrying previous models of ICBMs, all of which had been imported from China and modified, in violation of United Nations sanctions, because North Korea couldn't make them on its own.

"Either this new vehicle represents evidence of further transfers or, more seriously, represents progress in North Korea in indigenously constructing vehicles of this class," Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed in a recent webinar. "Either way, the answer is not reassuring."

From a practical standpoint, though, the decision to mount ever-larger liquid-fueled missiles on launch vehicles is a bit of a head-scratcher. The strategic value of a TEL-mounted missile is in its mobility, but the Hwasong-16, in a fully fueled state, would likely be too heavy to traverse most North Korean roads.

As Vann H. Van Diepen and Michael Elleman recently pointed out, part of the reason the new missile has been described as the largest of its kind is "because countries with ICBMs generally seek to make their road-mobile ICBMs smaller so they can be more mobile and concealable."

The rationale of parading such a huge missile, then, could be mainly political. Even if the Hwasong-16 is far from becoming operational, it sends a powerful signal to other countries that even in the face of crippling economic sanctions, North Korea will continue to disproportionately focus its scarce resources on developing its nuclear deterrent capabilities.

In a sharp contrast with the ominous weapons on display, Kim's speech at last weekend's parade was remarkably subdued, even conciliatory at times.

Wearing a light gray Western-style suit, he repeatedly expressed solidarity with the North Korean people at a time of "hardship," given the back-to-back typhoons that hit the country in recent months, even appearing to tear up at one point in a rare display of emotion. He apologized profusely for not being able to deliver greater economic rewards to his people.

"My comrades have put faith in me," Kim said, "but I have not come up with a due reward, for which I am shameful."

He also thanked North Koreans for their response to COVID-19, repeating the highly dubious claim that the country has not recorded any positive cases. Notably, no one marching in or attending the parade was wearing a face mask.

Even when trumpeting the country's military prowess, Kim stressed that he is "not strengthening our war deterrence against anyone specific." His speech made no explicit mention of the United States, and according to a report in NK News, a specialist North Korea-focused website, anti-US slogans that had been prominently displayed on military vehicles at previous parades were not visible this time.

Pyongyang likely wants to keep its options open with Washington ahead of a potential leadership change in next month's election. An adviser to Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who is leading President Donald Trump in the polls, recently told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that if he is elected, Biden would be willing to meet with Kim as part of a US strategy to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea.

Kim also had warm words for neighboring South Korea, saying he looks forward to "the day when we will triumph over the health crisis and the North and the South will hold hands together."

The message was in keeping with Pyongyang's recent efforts to create a more amiable atmosphere with Seoul, even after a South Korean official was shot and killed at sea last month by a North Korean patrol, apparently while trying to defect. That incident prompted a rare apology from Kim.

All the convivial rhetoric in the world, though, should not distract from an inescapable reality: North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs are not going away on their own. The military parade showed that Trump's efforts to charm Kim into giving up his weapons, or at least reducing his stockpile, have failed miserably.

Even the one concession Kim granted — a self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range ballistic missiles — was disavowed last December. If history is any guide, North Korea tends to conduct new weapons tests early in a new American presidential term, as an attempt to gain leverage in another round of negotiations.

Sooner or later, the United States will have to confront this problem, no matter who is in the White House next year—and the longer it waits, the higher the cost of any deal will be.

Elliot Waldman is the senior editor of World Politics Review.

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