By A.B. Abrams for the Saker Blog
Marking the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party, today the oldest ruling party in the world, a major military parade in Kim Il Sung Square, Central Pyongyang, sent a number of important messages regarding the state of North Korea’s ongoing conflict with the United States. The two countries has been officially at war for 70 years as of 2020, a comprehensive analysis of which was provided in my recently published book on the subject. The parade was the third held in Pyongyang since the Korean Peninsula came near the brink of direct conflict in 2017, and the first since February 2018 and the beginning of open negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington where the East Asian state has displayed strategic ballistic missiles. The display has been widely interpreted in the West as a sign of the Donald Trump administration’s failure to see through what was formerly considered by far its most successful foreign policy initiative, a breakthrough in relations with North Korea which would see the country either dismantle, or more realistically curb and accept a freeze on, its program to develop a strategic nuclear deterrent. Aside from three summit meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and a major toning down of rhetoric on both sides, the only sign of success in this regard was that North Korea stopped testing nuclear warheads and strategic ballistic missiles, and stopped displaying them either at military parades, as was evident at the last parade in September 2018, or on posters, music videos or other state propaganda works.
For the Donald Trump administration, failure to reach a deal with North Korea or make any tangible impact on its deterrence program was largely covered up by Pyongyang’s apparent assent to develop its weapons more quietly. And develop them they did, with U.S. intelligence indicating that the country was serially producing Hwasong-15 intercontinental range ballistic missiles and associated nuclear warheads throughout the period of open negotiations with Washington and ever since,  not giving the U.S. the victory of a ‘freeze’ on the weapons programs unless it received real concessions in return. North Korea had successfully test fired three intercontinental range ballistic (ICBM) missiles from July to November 2017, the first of which the writer personally saw announced and celebrated from central Pyongyang just a few steps from Kim Il Sung square on July 4th. These missiles, and a subsequent test of a more sophisticated miniaturised thermonuclear warhead, demonstrated beyond much reasonable doubt that America’s oldest adversary had gained the capability to strike the U.S. mainland, with U.S. intelligence later confirming the viability of both ICBM designs tested as well as their warheads. As Foreign Policy concluded in response to the first of these revelations in early August of that year ‘The Game Is Over, and North Korea Has Won.’ Following a further ICBM test three months later in November 2017, the most recent one to date, which saw a much larger missile called the Hwasong-15 fired, U.S. intelligence would further confirm that this new missile could strike not a part, but the entire U.S. mainland including East Coast cities like New York. 
In return for the Korean side keeping a lower profile, and not emphasizing the Trump administration’s failure to stop its weapons programs with conspicuous actions like missile tests, Washington relaxed its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Pyongyang. Trump not only agreed that it was ‘ok’ for China to loosen sanction enforcement against North Korea, with the American pressure strategy previously having been centred on ‘pressuring China to pressure Korea’ which subsequently was abandoned, but the American president also agreed for the first time to a one-to-one meeting with his North Korean counterpart. The latter was something the Korean side had been requesting for well over a decade, which prior administrations refused on the basis that it would ‘legitimise’ a government which America did not officially recognise, and that negotiations should be withheld a ‘reward’ for ‘good behaviour’ and moves towards disarmament. Thus the turn in the relationship from 2018 showed that North Korea was very much in the stronger position. This was further evidenced at the most recent meeting between Trump and Kim at the demilitarised zone in June 2019, referred to in The Atlantic as ‘the day denuclearisation died,’ representing a considerable step towards normalisation of North Korea as a nuclear power with no mention of the nuclear issue made at all during the meeting.
Regarding the recent military parade, the presence of a number of weapons systems both strategic and tactical were highly notable. The parade saw the second appearance of the Hwasong-15, which was followed by the unveiling of an entirely new yet unnamed ICBM design. The new missile is thought to be the largest in the world deployed from a mobile launcher, with its launch vehicle having 22 wheels compared to that of the already massive Hwasong-15 which had just 18 wheels. Given that the range of the Hwasong-15 is already sufficient to reach all possible strategic targets, it is expected that the new missile will carry a much larger payload comprised of multiple warheads and a multiple independent re-entry vehicle. This will allow each of the new missiles to cause several times as much damage as its predecessor, and will also make it much more difficult for American air defence systems such as the GMD to intercept attacks. The use of a solid fuel propellent, which will facilitate a shorter launch time and allow missiles to be stored fully fuelled, has also been speculated by a number of analysts. North Korean sources are likely to only specify the capabilities of the new missile should tensions with the U.S. again rise, as some form of warning.
A third strategic missile class which also received prominent position in the parade was the Pukkuksong-4 submarine launched platform. This is the only North Korean strategic weapon test fired since the end of 2017, although it was largely ignored by administration officials much as multiple tests of short ranged tactical missiles from Spring 2019 to early 2020 had been. Attempts by the Trump administration to play down the importance of Korean missile tests since 2017, including separately by State Secretary Pompeo and the president himself, were an unprecedented response to such activities against which all prior post-Cold War administrations had taken a zero-tolerance line. It thus again reflected that Pyongyang had gained a position of considerable strength.
Alongside the Pukkuksong-4, two other missiles using advanced solid fuel composites were displayed on parade, the KN-23 and KN-24 platforms, with the former appearing in very large numbers from different types of launch vehicle. Other than the single test of the Pukkuksong, these were the only missiles tested since 2017, and both are short ranged and intended for tactical purposes. The missiles are thought to have replaced the Hwasong-6 (a Scud derivative) and the KN-02 (a derivative of the Soviet Tochka) in production and frontline service, and provide capabilities several decades ahead and on par with the most capable tactical ballistic missiles in the world. The larger KN-23 in particular is a hypersonic missile with very high manoeuvrability – one which both South Korea and Japan have reported their sophisticated U.S.-supplied air defences failed even track making interception extremely difficult. The missile closely resembles the Russian Iskander platform, and plays a particularly critical role in North Korea’s defence by allowing it to quickly and reliable strike targets deep behind enemy lines such as air bases and command centres. Analysts have in the past highlighted that the missile poses an excellent counter to the deployment of new F-35 stealth fighters by South Korea, as while the maintenance intensive jets spend a great deal of time on the ground they will present ludicrous targets for Korean missile strikes.
North Korea’s two new tactical missiles are seen to largely compensate for its lack of a modern air force, the one glaring gap in its otherwise comprehensive military modernisation efforts – but also in some respects its strength given the very high cost of operating modern fighter aircraft and the arguably much greater cost effectiveness of developing state-of-the-art missiles domestically. These missiles were complemented by a very wide range of new rocket artillery systems, many of them never seen before, which provide a cheaper means of carrying out major strikes on military facilities and, if needed, against population centres, all across South Korea. North Korea’s KN-09 rocket artillery system previously set a world range record in 2013 at 200km, which was later eclipsed by the KN-25 unveiled in 2019 which holds the record today with a range of over 400km. The KN-25 was on parade accompanied by multiple unknown platforms which appear to be lighter variants of a similar design.
A further new weapons system, which is more specifically intended for aerial warfare, was an unnamed new long range surface to air missile system bearing some resemblance to the Russian S-400 platform. North Korea managed to move past its reliance on Soviet supplied S-200 air defence systems around the year 2016, as while the older system had a very formidable range it lacked the mobility or the sophisticated sensors needed to remain viable against the U.S. or South Korean air attacks. The Pyongae-5 surface to air missile was widely compared to the Russian S-300, and its unveiling promised to make incursions into Korean airspace far more difficult for enemy aircraft given its very modern design. Although the Pyongae-5 took centre stage at North Korea’s last parade in September 2018, it was replaced by a newer and larger system which appears to be its next generation successor. A move between generations of sophisticated long range air defence systems in such a short period is a sign of very concentrated investment in research and development in the field, and possibly the purchases of some related technologies from Russia or China to speed up the development process. The new missile system is expected to have a longer engagement range exceeding 200km, more potent electronic warfare countermeasures and sensors, and the ability to engage more targets simultaneously. Its deployment is significant given the very high reliance of the U.S. Military, and Western militaries in general, on air attacks to facilitate any kind of large-scale offensive operation.
While these were hardly the only takeaways from North Korea’s new military parade, with new battle tanks, the presence of Hwasong-12 ‘Guam Killer’ ballistic missile, an almost complete phasing out of Soviet-style uniforms, and the unveiling of a range of new combat vehicles and tank destroyers all being noteworthy, the weapons systems mentioned above have the greatest implications for the East Asian state’s strategic position. A higher proportion of weapons systems displayed at the parade were entirely new designs, never before seen, than at any prior military parade in North Korean history. Indeed, if the parade of 2020 is compared to that of September 2011, the final one under the leadership of Chairman Kim Jong Il, the country’s military today is almost totally unrecognisable in terms of the uniforms, hardware and even the marching style used – the only exception being the military aircraft flying overhead which are not expected to be replaced for some time.
North Korea’s ability to carry out such a comprehensive modernisation of its military inventory strongly supports multiple South Korean reports that the rate of the country’s economic growth is being drastically underestimated – with indicators from construction to the sharp and clearly observable annual growth in motor traffic all pointing to this. The displaying of the Hwasong-15 and Pukkuksong-4, and the unveiling of an entirely new intercontinental range ballistic missile design altogether, is a major embarrassment to the Donald Trump administration which undermines its much needed claim to a foreign policy victory, although its importance is inevitably being downplayed in light of upcoming presidential elections. Furthermore, with the new ICBM design almost certainly in need of at least one flight test, the opting of carrying this out, which would be interpreted in the U.S. as a provocation that the administration would struggle to downplay, provides Pyongyang with considerable leverage to press further for concessions and a partial lifting of UN economic sanctions in exchange for holding back on a further test and agreeing to a freeze on further production of strategic weapons. While the Hwasong-15 served as an effective guarantee of Korean security from a U.S. attack, North Korea has drastically improved its deterrence capabilities in the almost three years since it was test fired, while also increasingly seeking to use its weapons program, and specifically its ability to embarrass American administrations with conspicuous missile tests, to gain leverage in negotiations for a deal that will further boost its economy.
- ‘North Korea’s monstrous new missile is a reminder of Trump’s failure to contain the regime,’ Washington Post, October 12, 2020.Ward, Alex, ‘North Korea has unveiled new weapons, showing Trump failed to tame its nuclear program,’ Vox, October 13, 2020. ↑
- Choe, Sang-Hun. ‘North Korea Stages Huge Military Parade — Without Its ICBMs,’ New York Times, September 9, 2018. ↑
- Panda, Ankit, ‘Exclusive: North Korea Has Continued Ballistic Missile Launcher Production in 2018, Per US Intelligence,’ The Diplomat, June 30, 2018.Panda, Ankit, ‘US Intelligence: North Korea Is Continuing to Produce ICBMs,’ The Diplomat, July 31, 2018. ↑
- Warrick, Joby and Nakashima, Ellen and Fifield, Anna, ‘North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say,’ Washington Post, August 8, 2017.Lewis, Jeffrey, ‘The Game Is Over, and North Korea Has Won,’ Foreign Policy, August 9, 2017. ↑
- Lewis, Jeffrey, ‘The Game Is Over, and North Korea Has Won,’ Foreign Policy, August 9, 2017. ↑
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- Press Conference by President Trump, Capella Hotel, Singapore, June 12, 2018. ↑
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- Kim, Hong Nack, ‘U.S.-North Korea Relations under the Obama Administration: Problems and Prospects,’ North Korean Review, vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 2010 (p. 23-24, 28). ↑
- Friedman, Uri, ‘The Day Denuclearisation Died,’ The Atlantic, July 2, 2019. ↑
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- Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference, Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, Japan, 3.02PM. JST, May 27, 2019. ↑
- ‘Radar Evading Ballistic Missiles from North Korea? AEGIS Air Defence System Fails to Track New Projectiles,’ Military Watch Magazine, May 15, 2019. ↑
- ‘What Is Special About North Korea’s New “Iskander-Like” Tactical Ballistic Missiles – And Why Pyongyang’s Adversaries Are So Concerned,’ Military Watch Magazine, July 28, 2019. ↑
- ‘How North Korea Plans to Counter the F-35 – With Guided Artillery and Tactical Missiles,’ Military Watch Magazine, August 13, 2019. ↑
- ‘North Korea Demonstrates Range of Lethal New Rocket Artillery Systems with Major Exercises – Projectiles Fired Out to Sea,’ Military Watch Magazine, March 3, 2019. ↑
- ‘Former unification minister criticizes Bank of Korea statistics on North Korean growth rate,’ Hankyoreh, January 1, 2019. ↑
A.B. Abrams is the author of: “Power and Primacy: the history of western intervention in Asia”
I am an expert on the international relations, recent history and geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. I have published widely on defense and politics related subjects under various pseudonyms. I am proficient in Chinese, Korean and other regional languages.