While Iran was playing the part of good cop this weekend in Istanbul, their partners in WMD development in North Korea were putting the final touches on a military parade that has had the intelligence analysts across the globe abuzz since early this morning.
As if its much-heralded Unha-3 space rocket launch on Friday had never dismally fizzled out, even before the missile's second stage ignited, the parade celebrating Eternal President Kim Il Sung's centennial included the largest missiles ever seen on the streets of Pyongyang. On 16-wheel mobile launchers, 28 meter long rockets that could very likely be intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Though superficially similar to the Unha-3, this is a different design, one not seen in the past in any publically released photographs.
The fact that North Korea has been developing such missiles is no surprise; former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repeatedly warned that they are planning to build ICBMs that can strike American soil but he was predicting them to take about five years to reach a "limited capability." More details on the project were delivered in a classified briefing to Congress members five months ago.
Tal Inbar, the head of the space research center at the Fisher Institute and one of the leading Israeli experts on ballistic missiles said today that "it certainly looks exactly like an ICBM, though the photographs from the parade did not show the engine nozzles so it is hard to say for certain whether it is solid-fuel propelled."
A road-mobile solid-fuel ICBM would give North Korea the capability to launch an attack on targets in faraway countries with little warning to satellites and reconnaissance drones hovering above.
While some military analysts were quick to write off the missiles on parade as mock-ups, Inbar's assessment from the footage is that these are the real thing.
One clue leading to that conclusion is the fact that from the photographs and the serial numbers on the missiles, there were at least five of them on display. This would fit in with North Korea's highly unorthodox method of weapons-testing – rush to production without sufficient testing. While in the west and Russia, missiles and weapon systems are first test-fired before serial production and initial operational capability (IOC), the North Koreans rush to produce and deploy. They have not fired one of these new missiles - a launch would have immediately been spotted by surveillance satellites - just as they have yet to fire one of their BM-25 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. They already are believed to have deployed dozens of these and given nineteen of them to Iran (according to this U.S. State Department cable leaked by wikileaks). But a test-fire could be in the offing as the gantry on the Sohae launch-pad used on Friday is much larger than the Unha-3 rocket, which indicates that it is to be used for another missile in the future.
Besides being yet another nail in the coffin of the stillborn U.S.-North Korea food-for-nuclear-moratorium deal, Friday's misfire and today's parade mean that the west will have to be much more skeptical when in five weeks, talks with Iran resume on May 23 in Baghdad. While the talks on the future of uranium enrichment were according to the EU's chief negotiator Catherine Ashton - "constructive and useful," optimism has too often been short-lived and enrichment is only one link in a nuclear weapons program.