North Korea displayed new submarine-launched ballistic missiles under development and other military hardware in a parade that underlined leader Kim Jong Un’s defiant calls to expand the country’s nuclear weapons program.
State media said Kim took center stage in Thursday night’s parade celebrating a major ruling party meeting in which he vowed maximum efforts to bolster the nuclear and missile program that threatens Asian rivals and the American homeland to counter what he described as U.S. hostility.
During an eight-day Workers’ Party congress that ended Tuesday, Kim also revealed plans to salvage the nation’s economy, hit by U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions, pandemic-related border closures and natural disasters that wiped out crops.
The economic setbacks have left Kim with nothing to show for his ambitious diplomacy with President Donald Trump, which derailed over disagreements about sanctions relief in exchange for North Korean denuclearization steps, and pushed Kim to what is clearly the toughest moment of his nine-year rule.
Kim’s comments are likely intended to pressure the incoming U.S. government of Joe Biden, who has previously called the North Korean leader a “thug” and accused Trump of chasing spectacle rather than meaningful curbs on the North’s nuclear capabilities. Kim has not ruled out talks, but said the fate of bilateral relations depends on whether Washington abandons its hostile policy toward North Korea.
North Korean state TV on Friday aired edited footage of the parade which showed thousands of civilians and troops roaring and fireworks exploding overhead as Kim stepped out of a building and took his spot at a podium in Kim Il Sung Square, named after his grandfather and the country’s founder.
Kim, wearing a black fur hat and leather trench coat, waved and smiled widely as his troops chanted “Let’s defend Kim Jong Un with our lives!” and “Protect with our lives the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee led by Great Comrade Kim Jong Un!”
Reports and video from state media suggested that Kim did not make a speech during the parade.
His defense minister, Kim Jong Gwan, said in a speech that North Korea’s military would “pre-emptively marshal our greatest might to thoroughly punish hostiles forces” if they threaten the North’s safety.
Military aircraft flew in formation across the dark sky, using what appeared to be flares to form the symbol of the Workers’ Party — a hammer, brush and sickle.
Flag-waving spectators, unmasked despite a fervent domestic campaign to fend off the coronavirus, cheered as troops rolled out some of the country’s most advanced weapons, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles described by the official Korean Central News Agency as the “world’s most powerful weapon.”
The new type of submarine-launched missiles was larger than the ones North Korea previously tested.
The North also displayed a variety of solid-fuel weapons designed to be fired from mobile land launchers, which potentially expand its capability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including U.S. military bases there.
KCNA said the parade featured other missiles capable of “thoroughly annihilating enemies in a pre-emptive way outside (our) territory.” But it wasn’t immediately clear whether the description referred to intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Photos and video released by state media didn’t appear to include weapons that could be definitely identified as ICBMs.
During a previous military parade in October, North Korea unveiled what appeared to be its biggest-yet ICBM. Its previous long-range missiles demonstrated a potential ability to reach deep inside the U.S. mainland during flight tests in 2017.
North Korea has been developing submarine-launched ballistic missile systems for years. Acquiring an operational system would alarm its rivals and neighbors because missiles fired from under water are harder to detect in advance.
Still, Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies and a former military official who participated in inter-Korean military talks, said the North’s presumably new submarine-launched missiles could possibly be engineering mockups that require further development before they are ready to be tested and deployed.
While Kim Jong Un vowed during the congress to develop nuclear-powered submarines capable of firing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, it would take “considerable time” for North Korea to overcome financial and technological difficulties and produce such systems, the analyst said.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the way North Korea featured the submarine-launched missiles in the parade suggests that a test related to them could be North Korea’s first provocation for the Biden administration.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it is studying the weapons displayed by North Korea but didn’t immediately release a detailed assessment.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Tokyo is monitoring North Korean missile developments with “great concern.”
Nuclear-powered submarines were just one of many advanced military assets on Kim’s wish list during the congress, which also included longer-range ICBMs that could potentially target the U.S. mainland more reliably, new tactical nuclear weapons and warheads, spy satellites and hypersonic weapons.
It’s unclear whether North Korea is fully capable of developing such systems. While the country is believed to have accumulated at least dozens of nuclear weapons, outside estimates of the exact status of its nuclear and missile program vary widely.