On Saturday, North Korea continued its dance with Western powers intent on disarming the fledgling nuclear state by displaying a wide array of what are assumed to be nuclear capable missiles in their annual “Day of the Sun” celebration. The parade and festivities are all intended to commemorate the birth of North Korean founder, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
Among the missiles on display were the submarine-launched missiles North Korea has based their ballistic missile program off of, its land based counterpart that has seen a number of tests in recent months to varying degrees of success, and two never-before-seen intercontinental ballistic missile sized canisters that may be an indication of significant progress in North Korea’s attempts to develop a missile capable of striking the country they see as their greatest opponent: the United States.
The military parade was a spectacle to see, as a nation with fewer than five hundred total miles of paved road managed to create a scene reminiscent of dystopian films set in a war-torn future, or perhaps a throwback to Soviet Era nuclear posturing, as a veritable sea of men and women in military uniforms standing silently before massive national flags and banners served as the backdrop for a procession of weapons of mass destruction. Objectively, it was an impressive spectacle to see, but because so little concrete information manages to slip through the cracks in the North Korean border, it also serves as an important opportunity to gather and assess intelligence pertaining to the country’s nuclear capabilities.
First and foremost, the display of ICBM sized launch canisters can allow for a number of inferences regarding North Korea’s plans for a U.S.-capable missile platform; primary among them is that seeing what might appear to be a complete launch platform (that may even house missiles) doesn’t mean their ICBM program is anything close to functional. North Korea has a long history of military theater as a stand in for military fact in the interest of posturing internationally. With no ICBM launch tests to speak of, their inclusion in the parade was likely meant as a message about their intentions, rather than a display of a complete weapon system.
“We don’t know what — if anything — was inside the canisters since North Korea hasn’t publicly shown off or tested any missile of that size before,” analyst Ankit Panda said of the display.
“We can infer given the size of the canister and the fact that it was paraded on Saturday that Pyongyang wants the world to know that it is actively working toward at least two types of solid-fuel, canisterized ICBMs,” Panda continued.
This brings us to the second important revelation to come of the inclusion of ICBMs in Saturday’s parade: canister launched missiles are most likely powered by a solid-fuel mixture. Solid fuel rockets require less preparation to launch, meaning they can be launched with less lead time, and are far easier to maneuver and conceal than their liquid-fueled counterparts.
North Korea’s wheeled missile launchers would limit the ICBM launch vehicles to North Korea’s sparse bits of paved road and well maintained dirt ones, but the ICBMs and some smaller platforms were displayed on vehicles equipped with “caterpillar” treads similar to those found on a tank. This slight variation on their launch vehicles would allow North Korea’s nukes to be placed, or hidden, just about anywhere in the reclusive nation. The length of the canisters was also in keeping with the size of missile required for a long, intercontinental flight.
As for North Korea’s submarine and ground based missiles on display – an important supposition can be drawn by their inclusions and display methods as well. Including the submarine-launched platform they based their land-missiles off of doesn’t seem like it was a nod to the technology that got them here, but rather a sign that they are continuing their efforts to equip a submarine with launchable missiles. As North Korea’s current missiles are expected to have a range of approximate 600 kilometers (around 370 miles), firing them from a submarine would offer a significantly wider target area, and even North Korea’s aging submarines can be difficult to detect.
Tensions between North Korea and Western powers led by the United States are reaching record highs, with rumors about the possibility of Donald Trump ordering military action against the North Korean nuclear program and Kim Jong Un’s regime offering repeated warnings that they will launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike at the slightest provocation.
The Nimitz class, nuclear powered, super carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and accompanying strike group are currently en route to the Korean peninsula, where they are expected to be joined by a number of Japanese destroyers. While this could easily be nothing more than a demonstration of military might intended to get Kim to back down, it seems unlikely that any involved expect him to do so. What might happen if he doesn’t remains a mystery.
Images courtesy of Reuters/The Associated Press
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