North Korea showed off a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade, state media said Friday, revealing yet another weapon experts say is likely to put Japan in its crosshairs and lay the foundation for a longer-range solid-fueled rocket.
The North held its second military parade since October on Thursday night, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, with photos showing leader Kim Jong Un, a wide grin on his face, overseeing rows of troops and weapons.
The parade came after the closing of a rare party congress that saw Kim pledge to continue his country’s nuclear weapons development, in a shot across the bow of the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.
Aging fighter jets opened the parade, flying in formation and creating the shape of an “eight” in Korean characters to mark the conclusion of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s eighth congress. Columns of armored vehicles then rolled through central Pyongyang, followed by “prototype tanks” and “ultra-modern” tactical missiles and artillery pieces, KCNA said.
Unlike the October parade, no intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were displayed in the photos released.
Rather, the crown jewel of the event appeared to be the new SLBM, the Pukguksong-5 — the third iteration of the Pukguksong-type missile to be revealed in three years. Four of the five variants are SLBMs, and Pyongyang is known to be developing an operational submarine that can fire the missiles.
“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missile, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” KCNA said.
A comparison of photos released by KCNA showed that the new Pukguksong-5 SLBM appeared demonstrably larger than the last variant, the Pukguksong-4, which was revealed during the October military parade, experts said. The Pukguksong-4 has not been flight tested.
“The new missile definitely looks longer; the troop bench was removed from the trailer in order to fit the new missile,” Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote on Twitter. “The front set of missile supports might have been moved, as well.”
North Korea tested the Pukguksong-3, which flew about 450 kilometers and reached a maximum altitude of 910 km, in October 2019. Analysts have estimated it to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of traveling up to 1,900 km, putting all of the Japanese archipelago in range and making it the longest-range solid-fuel missile North Korea has tested to date.
Asked about the new SLBM, Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said Tokyo was aware of the display and added that it was working with the U.S. and others to analyze the development. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also confirmed what he called “a show of military force,” adding that Japan was working with the U.S. and South Korea to analyze the parade.
The new Pukguksong-5 could see improved range and targeting capabilities, according to experts, but could also be a building block for other, longer-range solid-fueled weapons.
Solid-fueled missiles are less demanding to transport and don’t require fueling and preparation before use, unlike their liquid-fueled counterparts, making them easier to move while evading prying eyes and attacks.
But military experts say North Korea’s decrepit submarine force would easily be detected and destroyed, while sanctions make developing any survivable sub a virtually unattainable goal. One possible objective behind the rush to build the new missiles, however, could be to lay the groundwork for another escalation: the revelation of a solid-fueled ICBM.
“I’m struggling to understand the logic of this rapid SLBM development and evolution with no real survivable submarine and the only thing that makes sense to me is that these developments are setting the stage for a solid fuel ICBM,” Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT, wrote on Twitter. “To me that has to be the end game here.”
The parade comes after Kim used the party congress, the country’s first since 2016, to double down on his vow to bolster the country’s “nuclear war deterrent” and build more powerful military capabilities, less than a week before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
Denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington have remained deadlocked since negotiations collapsed over disagreements on what North Korea was willing to give up in exchange for relief from crushing U.N. Sanctions, imposed over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Kim largely stuck to a familiar playbook at the congress, saying he would continue to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles and lambasting the United States as the rogue state’s “principal enemy.”
Kim also unveiled a wishlist of advanced new weaponry at the meeting, including smaller and lower-yield nuclear weapons and longer-range solid-fuel missiles, some of which he said were already in development or bound for testing.
North Korea has not fired off a long-range weapon since November 2017, when it tested a missile analysts say is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.
Still, the country has continued to build up and refine its arsenal, even after Kim’s three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.
In an example of the North’s growing nuclear capabilities, a monster new ICBM unveiled in the October military parade was thought by some analysts to be capable of carrying enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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