North Korea, at a dawn parade on Saturday, 10 October celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), unveiled two new ballistic missiles, highlighting the extent to which Pyongyang has upgraded its arsenal despite the long-range ballistic missile testing freeze introduced after negotiations with the US began in 2018. It is still unlikely that North Korea will begin a new cycle of provocation before the US presidential election; North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who sent US President Donald Trump a letter wishing him a speedy recovery from Covid-19 not long before the parade, clearly remains committed to a personal relationship with Trump. But the new weapons could augur another round of tensions after the US presidential election, particularly if former vice president Joe Biden defeats Trump.
The two new missiles – the Puguksong-4 and the Hwasong-16 – suggest that North Korea is determined to attain a survivable missile and nuclear force. The former is believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM); the latter appears to be a heavyweight liquid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Puguksong-4 is a clear signal of North Korea’s intention to develop an operational SLBM capability, which would provide it with a second leg of a nuclear triad. While the US would likely be able to detect North Korea’s relatively noisy submarines, the deployment of a ballistic missile-capable submarine would add a level of sophistication to the threat posed by North Korean weapons of mass destruction and render Pyongyang’s arsenal more capable of surviving a counterattack. The Hwasong-16, meanwhile, may be capable of carrying multiple warheads and decoys (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, MIRV) that could overcome US missile defense systems while targeting much of the continental US. However, it is unclear whether North Korea has perfected MIRV capabilities and whether the displayed missiles were prototypes or otherwise still in development. The survivability of the new ICBM in a crisis could also be limited, since its size would reduce its mobility and its need to be fueled could make it a vulnerable target. Nevertheless, both missiles signal Pyongyang’s intent to possess a robust deterrent that could survive counterstrikes by the US and its allies.
While foreign observers paid particular attention to the new missiles, the most noteworthy development may have been Kim’s speech at the parade, during which he appeared to shed tears as he sought to rally the North Korean people to overcome “three hardships” – the international sanctions regime, the Covid-19 pandemic, and natural disasters, including major flooding that destroyed a significant share of agricultural production. The implication is that the economic challenges North Korea has faced this year remain salient and could lead Pyongyang to act more cautiously in the coming months. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration, meanwhile, welcomed conciliatory remarks from Kim – who wished for South Korea to overcome the public health crisis – and expressed its hopes for renewed inter-Korean diplomacy. Moon in particular is pushing for an end-of-war declaration before his term ends in 2022. However, it is unclear whether either a second Trump administration or a Biden administration will be eager to prioritize a declaration. Trump, despite his personal diplomacy with Kim, was reportedly displeased with the new missiles displayed in the parade.