TOKYO – North Korea put on a jaw-dropping military display Saturday, when the regime celebrated its most important day of the year: "the Day of the Sun,” the anniversary of its founder, Kim Il Sung.
Kim Jong Un, the founder’s grandson and the current leader of North Korea, has made it very clear that he wants nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them to the United States. In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said that North Korea was entering the “final stage” of preparations to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the American mainland.
So experts were anticipating a big show Saturday, but even they were stunned by the range of apparently new missiles on display, and the sheer number of them.
We talked to Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California and a self-described "arms control wonk," about the missiles on display Saturday.
Here are the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective.)
Were those ICBMs?
Let’s start at the end. As the finale for Saturday’s parade, the North Korean military wheeled two sets of huge missile canisters through Kim Il Sung Square. These are the canisters that hold the missiles, not the missiles themselves, and it’s anyone’s guess what was inside the canisters. Maybe intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to reach the United States, maybe nothing at all.
“But if it’s not an ICBM itself, it’s bridge to an ICBM,” Lewis said.
One set of canisters appeared to be the right size for the KN-08, a three-stage missile that North Korea calls the Hwasong-13. With a theoretical range of about 7,500 miles, this missile could reach all of the United States from North Korea.
“The natural reaction is: What the hell is that?” Lewis said of the canister. “Maybe there is a KN-08 inside it, maybe there’s some new missile inside it, or maybe it’s nothing. It’s a mystery.”
The second set of “giant” canisters looked similar to those for the Topol-M, the Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, he said. “What’s inside those is a mystery too.”
“My guess is that what it’s intended to convey is that there are more ICBMs coming, more solid-fuel missiles,” Lewis said.
Solid-fuel missiles: from sea and land
The North Korean military displayed six ballistic missiles that can be launched from a submarine, which the United States calls the KN-11 but which North Korea calls the Pukguksong-1 (or “Polaris-1.”)
North Korea fired one of these missiles from a submarine near its east coast port of Sinpo in August, and it flew about 300 miles before falling into the sea inside Japan’s air-defense identification zone, the area in which Tokyo controls aircraft movement.
Kim described it as “the greatest success” at the time and said North Korea has “joined the front rank of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability.”
Analysts were surprised to see six of these missiles in the parade.
“It looks like a real missile,” Lewis said. “They could go to all the trouble of manufacturing a perfect copy, but if you’re doing that, it’s just as easy to make the real missile.”
North Korea also displayed — for the first time — its KN-15, the land-based version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile, which North Korea calls the Pukguksong-2 (or “Polaris-2.”) This is also powered by solid fuel.
North Korea launched this missile for the first time earlier this month, firing it from a land base near Sinpo, home to a known North Korean submarine base.
The missile did not appear to go very far, but still, analysts described the development as “scary” because of the solid-fuel component.
This is what Lewis’s colleague Melissa Hanham said at the time: “Solid fuel is very significant because they can launch these missiles much faster and with a smaller entourage than with liquid-fueled missiles, making them much harder for the United States, South Korea and Japan to spot from satellites.”
Another kind of ICBM?
There were black-and-white missiles that looked like KN-08s, the intercontinental ballistic missile, but slightly smaller, Lewis said. And they were rolled out on missile vehicles usually used for the medium-range Musudan missile.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported in January, citing military officials, that North Korea had probably built two ICBMs that were less than 50 feet long. That would make them shorter than the two known ICBMs, which are between 60 and 65 feet long.
“I think this is that,” said Lewis.
Another technological development.
Lewis and his team were not sure about one type of missile that was on show, painted in camouflage and transported on a tank. It could be an extended-range Scud or a Rodong, capable of flying up to 800 miles.
But what they were sure about was that the missile had fins on it, meaning that the reentry vehicle on the missile could be controlled on the way down – in other words, the warhead could be maneuvered to hit a target.
If the extended range Scud was a “super Scud,” this is a “super-duper Scud,” said Lewis.
Minor news this year.
Then there were the canisters on top of tracked vehicles that North Korea displayed at the very start of the parade. These appeared to be for anti-ship cruise missiles, a North Korean version of Russia's Kh-35 missile.
“In any other year, North Korea having a coastal defense cruise missile and showing it to us for the first time would have made us say ‘Wow’,” said Lewis. “But this year, with all this other stuff, nobody cares about something that can go only 100 or 200 km,” he said. (That’s 62 to 125 miles.)
But wait, there’s more.
If this wasn’t enough, here’s one more observation. North Korea showed a large number of transporters during the parade, many of them an indigenous tank that North Korea can build at home, rather than having to import through China.
This means that North Korea increasingly has the ability to move its missiles around and, with the road-mobile missile launchers they are now favoring over old-fashioned gantries, launch them from anywhere.
As Lewis puts it: “They want us to know that their missile program is pretty far along.”