The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s annual Day of the Sun, the celebration of the birth of its founder and president for life and death, Kim Il-sung, has passed without another nuclear test taking place to celebrate Kim’s 105th birthday. While many will be heaving a cautious sigh of relief and even crediting U.S. President Donald Trump for deterring grandson Kim Jong-un by threatening him on Twitter, sending messages through Chinese President Xi Jinping and the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson towards the Korean peninsula, what North Korea actually did on its national holiday is no less worrying.
The annual military parade in Pyongyang included the usual mix of colorful synchronized dancers, goose-stepping troopers, tanks, cannons and missiles, but the missiles displayed this year signalled a major escalation in North Korea’s sabre-rattling. Military analysts and Korea-watchers were quick to note that no less than six Pukkuksong-1 intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM), designed to be launched from submarines at targets estimated to range anywhere up to 3,000 kilometers away were paraded before Kim’s eyes.
These were followed by six tracked launchers carrying closed canisters of what are believed to be the land-based version of the IRBM, the Pukkuksong-2. The number of missiles on display and the fact that North Korea can already field what looks like at least six launchers capable of traversing unpaved roads leading to underground hideouts astonished observers. The crescendo was delivered by a series of three even larger launchers carrying missile canisters, of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), two of which are not even believed to have been tested yet.
Nothing shown on a parade in Pyongyang can be taken at face value. Sharp-eyed observers noticed that some of the components of the missiles looked a bit lose and in a couple of cases, vehicles on parade seemed to lose power and were quickly diverted from the boulevard. For all we know, some, perhaps even all the missile canisters on display were empty. Many of the 37 missile-tests detected and tracked since the start of 2016 were failures. North Korea still only has one submarine capable of launching the Pukkuksong-1 which is still in a testing phase. Its land-based version has only been tested once and it is still very unclear whether the North Koreans have succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear device to warhead size that can be carried on a missile. The ICBM capability, which one day could put not just South Korea and Japan within range, but continental U.S. as well, still seems a long way off from maturity. But the message from Pyongyang is clear.
North Korea is determined not to remain just a nuclear power, but to develop all the three elements of the nuclear triad, air, sea and land launched. This will give it not only a flexibility regarding the targets it could potentially strike and making it much more difficult to intercept by missile defense systems, but no less importantly, allowing it to disperse bombs and launch vehicles to a wide variety of hidden locations, underground and beneath the waves. This could give the North Koreans a second-strike capability to retaliate with if the U.S. does try to take out its nuclear arsenal preemptively.
Kim Jong-un wants the Americans to fear he already holds enough of these capabilities to deter any preemptive attack from taking place. This is a huge challenge for the U.S. intelligence community and its allies to try and build a clear picture of what North Korea can actually do at this point, and how far away it still is from the capabilities it desires. It is an even greater challenge for the leaders of China and the U.S. who will have to decide what combination of diplomatic, economic and military pressure to bring upon Kim to try and stop him from going all the way. It would be terrifying enough if the leaders involved were seasoned statesmen. In this case one of them is a mysterious 33-year-old fun-loving dictator and another is Donald J. Trump.