Images released by the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) showed thousands of people and soldiers at a nighttime military parade in Pyongyang, the capital, including leader Kim Jong Un.
The headliner, however, was the new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) — which KCNA declared was the “world’s most powerful weapon.” Pyongyang also showed off an apparent new short-range ballistic missile which, like its submarine counterpart, likely runs on solid fuel. Solid-fueled missiles can be fired on shorter notice than liquid-fueled counterparts.
The display comes just days after Kim said North Korea was pursuing sophisticated new armaments for the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, including a nuclear-powered submarine, tactical nuclear weapons and advanced warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems.
Analysts said Kim’s plans — and the missiles put on display — are worrying signs for the future of any possible disarmament talks between Pyongyang and the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
“No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature and the true spirit of the anti-North Korea policy will never change,” Kim said Saturday. “The development of nuclear weapons will be pushed forward without interruption.”
Thursday’s parade was held to celebrate the conclusion of the Eighth Workers’ Party Congress — a meeting for North Korea’s elite to gather and reflect on successes and failures in years past and set an agenda for the near future. They are typically held every five years or so, but Kim’s father and predecessor — Kim Jong Il — stopped holding them after 1980. Kim Jong Un revived the congresses in 2016.
Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, hinted earlier this week that Pyongyang might mark the end of the Congress with a parade.
The main focus of the Eighth Congress was North Korea’s dire economic situation. The Covid-19 pandemic, sanctions and natural disasters have all upended Kim’s long-stated goal of improving the living standards of all North Koreans. That dire outlook, however, has not impacted Pyongyang’s ambitious and expensive plans for weapons development, regardless of its limited resources.
“Kim continues to show the world that despite North Korea’s economic difficulties over the last year, the focus on sustaining nuclear forces and modernizing conventional weaponry has not shifted,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Panda said the SLBM displayed was “evidence of North Korea’s growing sophistication with large solid propellant-based ballistic missiles,” but noted it’s also important to consider why Kim may have wanted to show them to his own people.
“These parades aren’t just for the outside world, of course,” said Panda, author of “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea.”
“Even as Kim openly acknowledges economic difficulties, he can shore up his leadership by showing the people of Pyongyang — North Korea’s elite — that he’s been able to deliver on military modernization.”
The SLBM and the new systems announced by Kim during the Congress are at various stages of development, but nearly all of them would need to be tested in order to be considered operational — the type of testing that’s anathema to Washington. A test-launch of a new missile, warhead or nuclear device would likely set the stage for a showdown between the two countries in the early days of a new US administration that needs to confront a raging coronavirus pandemic and unprecedented political unrest at home.
However, some analysts were encouraged by the fact that North Korea did not show off its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are designed to send a nuclear weapon across the planet — potentially to the United States.
The weapons systems displayed as a whole were less impressive than those trotted out in October, when North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Communist organ that rules the country. The parade to end that occasion included a gargantuan ICBM so big it needed to be put on an 11-axle truck. Experts believe the massive design meant it likely could be armed with multiple warheads.
One of the most puzzling sights at the parade Thursday, however, was the fact very few people photographed were wearing masks. The lack of masks was unsurprising given recent history: very few masks were seen at an October parade and at the start of the Party Congress last week.
But holding such a large, maskless gathering is very risky. Kim’s regime has gone to great lengths to educate its people on the danger of the coronavirus and to stop its spread, likely because it knows its dilapidated health care infrastructure would be overwhelmed by a major outbreak of Covid-19.
North Korea claims to not have recorded a single case of Covid-19, so holding a major event without masks may be a way to reinforce that narrative. But almost no one believes the country as been spared from a pandemic that has infected more than 93 million people and killed nearly 2 million.