North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to hold his biggest military parade in at least two years and show off a nuclear arsenal that poses one of the most daunting security challenges for the winner of the US presidential election.
The event — part of festivities Saturday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea — could showcase the “new strategic weapon” Kim pledged to unveil at the start of the year. Any missiles designed to hit American targets would underscore how North Korea remains a nuclear threat to the US as President Donald Trump prepares to defend his record against Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the election.
North Korea didn’t include the military parade in its regular program lineup for Saturday, indicating it may show the event on a tape delay. Some past parades — including the one held in September 2018 — didn’t appear on television until the next day. The foreign ministry sent letters to embassies in Pyongyang advising diplomats not to take pictures or come near the celebration venue, the Russian embassy said in a post on its Facebook page.
South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook told parliament Wednesday in Seoul that Pyongyang was preparing for a “military show of force involving its strategic weapons.” While satellite imagery has shown North Korea mustering troops and equipment for months for a big parade, the timing of the event and how much the secretive state will choose to share with the outside world remains unclear.
Here are five things to watch:
Newer, better ICBM
One of the most alarming items North Korea might roll out is an intercontinental ballistic missile that features solid-fuel technology. Such a weapon would be quicker to launch than Kim’s current liquid-fuel models — giving the US less time to destroy it on the pad or prepare to intercept it in the air.
Although North Korea hasn’t fired off an ICBM since November 2017, it conducted a long-burn test of a new engine and debuted an assortment of shorter-range, solid-fueled rockets last year. The tips of the missile may also show whether Kim has developed the capability to put multiple warheads on a single rocket. Such achievements would deal the biggest blow yet to Trump’s assertion that his unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 had ensured North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.”
Ankit Panda, a Stanton senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said North Korea has often unveiled strategic weapons systems on big ruling party milestones. “The 75th anniversary this weekend may be an opportune time for North Korea to reveal a new ICBM,” he said.
One of the least flashy but most crucial parts of North Korea’s nuclear program are transporter erector launchers, or TELs. These are mobile launchpads that can be hidden in places such as caves and under bridges, and deployed quickly in an attack.
With enough TELs, North Korea can demonstrate its ability to launch a first strike and still have enough in reserve for a second volley. Kim has tried to build more TELs at home and break his long reliance on truck imports from places such as China. The more axles North Korea can put on a TEL, the bigger the missiles it can launch. The more trucks it has with tank tracks, the more places it can send them.
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North Korea has also been developing a new missile designed to be launched from a submarine, a necessary step to making Kim’s fleet a credible nuclear threat. A year ago, it launched a solid-fuel Pukguksong-3 missile from an underwater platform, demonstrating an estimated maximum range of about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles).
This is the most advanced solid-fuel missile that Kim’s regime has launched and if the Pukguksong-3 rolls by on a TEL, it would represent a new strategic weapon that could deliver a nuclear warhead to all of South Korea and most of Japan.
While such parades are chiefly intended to stoke national pride and reaffirm support for the Kim regime, they can also provide a platform to send diplomatic messages to his adversaries. Kim may give a speech, or leave the bombastic rhetoric to his generals or state-run media.
Such statements will be watched for direct threats to Japan, South Korea and, of course, the US North Korea has in recent months indicated that Kim expects more from Washington than a good relationship with Trump, and right before the US election would be a good time to drive that home. Kim has been pushing for a nuclear deal that would get him relief from international sanctions without giving up too much of his weapons program.
The parade may also show off Kim’s growing arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles. The regime has test-launched more than 30 of them since 2019. These include the nuclear-capable, hypersonic KN-23 that can strike all of South Korea — including US forces stationed south of Seoul — within two minutes. He has also launched KN-25 short-range missiles designed to be fired in rapid succession from a single launcher and overwhelm interceptors.
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