On 10 October, North Korea held a military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.
During the parade, North Korea unveiled two new ballistic missiles, including the new ‘strategic weapon’ that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un promised at the end of 2019.
This Insight examines what this indicates about North Korea’s nuclear programme and future diplomatic efforts on denuclearisation.
Previous hopes for peace on the Korean peninsula
An improvement in US and North Korean relations in 2018 gave hope that peace on the Korean peninsula was in reach, and that Kim Jong-un could be persuaded to abandon his country’s nuclear programme.
Kim Jong-un announced a moratorium (temporary prohibition) on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear tests and decommissioned a number of nuclear facilities. In return, the US and South Korea suspended military exercises as part of confidence building measures.
In February 2019, however, a second US-North Korea summit broke up early without agreement. That setback confirmed that the two sides continue to have very different ideas about what denuclearisation means and how it should happen.
The US wants total denuclearisation by North Korea after which everything else, including the lifting of sanctions, will follow. North Korea’s approach remains a gradualist one, based on reciprocal actions with some sanctions lifted upfront.
When did talks break down?
In June 2019 President Trump and Kim Jong-un met again in the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas. Nothing concrete materialised.
Relations have since taken a downturn. Kim Jong-un announced the US had until the end of 2019 to adopt a more flexible negotiating position and make proposals to revive discussions. He said that, in their absence, North Korea would give the US “a Christmas gift.”
Although that gift failed to materialise, at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party in December 2019, Kim made a speech calling for “positive and offensive measures” to safeguard the country’s “sovereignty and security.” He also renounced the moratorium on testing and said the regime would soon unveil a new “strategic weapon”, which was eventually shown in the parade.
North Korean economy under pressure
Despite efforts to evade sanctions, the North Korean economy has been weakened and remains under pressure. Efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus led North Korea to close its borders with China (its main trading partner) at the start of the pandemic. The country also experienced widespread flooding and damage from multiple typhoons over the summer.
In his speech at the military parade, Kim acknowledged the pressure on the economy and issued a rare, and tearful, apology for his failure to guide the county through unprecedented times and “rid our people of the difficulties in their life.”
What did we learn from the parade?
Although North Korea hasn’t conducted any nuclear or ICBM tests since the lifting of the moratorium, the parade shows that work on the nuclear programme continues, and Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions remain intact.
On display was a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Pukguksong-4. It’s unclear how this latest variant differs from its predecessor, the Pukguksong-3, although greater range is considered the most likely technological advancement. North Korea has had a submarine-launched nuclear capability under development for years, although analysts continue to question its credibility.
The regime’s new “strategic weapon” is a road-mobile, liquid-fuelled ICBM that is significantly larger than the Hwasong-15, tested in November 2017. With an estimated range of 13,000km, the Hwasong-15 is capable of targeting all of the US mainland.
The motivation behind developing a much larger ICBM is unclear. Its larger size may enable the delivery of a greater payload to the same range as the Hwasong-15. So far, North Korea has not, however, demonstrated what’s known as a ‘multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle’ (MIRV), which would allow it to engage several targets at once.
Doubts also remain over the ability of a warhead on an ICBM to survive atmospheric re-entry from space. A larger ICBM could allow for the deployment of countermeasures and decoys, in an effort to overcome US missile defence systems.
Is bigger better?
The political message the parade sends cannot be understated.
In terms of mobility in North Korea’s terrain and the ability to conceal an ICBM from pre-emptive attack, bigger is not necessarily better. However, showcasing the world’s largest mobile ICBM demonstrates military strength, prestige and technological ability.
Despite the fact the missile has not yet been flight tested, it also shows a commitment to advancing North Korea’s nuclear options.
Ahead of next month’s US presidential election, it also serves as a reminder to the next US administration that the North Korean nuclear issue has not gone away.
Hopes for future diplomacy?
North Korea has stated on several occasions it has no interest in resuming talks with the US until Washington adopts a different approach to the relaxation of sanctions. Several analysts have suggested the regime may be waiting on the outcome of the election before deciding what course to chart.
What’s certain is that the next US administration won’t be able to ignore this foreign policy challenge for long.
Nuclear Weapons – Country Comparisons, House of Commons Library (currently being updated).
North Korea: January 2020 update, House of Commons Library.
Making sense of the impending US-North Korea summit, House of Commons Library, May 2018.
About the author: Claire Mills is a defence analyst at the House of Commons Library.