Two years ago, North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs were at the forefront of many Americans’ minds, as each subsequent test seemed to demonstrate increasing strategic capability. Atomic tests gave way to apparent hydrogen (or thermonuclear) tests. Ballistic missile tests gave way to intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Soon, it seemed all but clear that North Korea possessed the capability to strike the American mainland with a nuclear weapon.

President Trump’s administration adopted an aggressive posture in dealing with North Korea’s provocations, and in many ways, that aggressive posture seemed to pay dividends. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met with both South Korean and American leaders, including President Trump himself, and the nuclear tests came to an end. It seemed, at least for the moment, that America had postponed a North Korean nuclear standoff. But there was little doubt that Kim’s days of saber-rattling would continue.

North Korea’s new ICBM (KCNA)

Last Saturday, those suspicions were confirmed as North Korea held a widely publicized military parade that made it clear that Kim Jon Un’s nuclear ambitions have not wained. On display, alongside a number of important military developments (like a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and new body armor for troops), was a new intercontinental ballistic missile that seems to positively dwarf North Korea’s previous premier nuclear weapon, the Hwasong-15 (or HS-15).

Of course, North Korea has a long and illustrious history of faking significant defense developments for the sake of the global press. Even its claims about its existing nuclear arsenal are often seen as, at the very least, littered with exaggeration. So, while this new missile looks a whole lot bigger than the missile North Korea has already demonstrated could reach American shores, we should take analytical extrapolations about its potential capability with a grain of salt.

However, based on what we know about North Korea’s previous ballistic missile programs, the state of its nuclear weapons programs, and the basics of missile technology, we can make some assumptions about this new weapon and what it means for America’s relations with the hermit nation.

Bigger is Probably Better

This new missile, which for the moment lacks an official name, is significantly bigger than the longest-range missile in North Korea’s arsenal, the HS-15. The HS-15 was first tested in 2017. Based on the missile’s trajectory, altitude, and flight time, scientists have estimated it to have an operational range of greater than 8,100 miles — giving it the legs it needs to target the American capital city of Washington D.C. The new missile shown in Saturday’s parade is significantly larger than the HS-15.

All of that added size could mean this new missile has a far greater range than even the HS-15. But for North Korea, this may not be the most important development it has pursued over these past years of relative quiet. Instead, it seems more likely that all this added size (and accompanying fuel) are for the benefit of a larger payload.

North Korea
HS-15 (North Korean State TV)

The assumption then could be that this new missile was developed specifically to utilize multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). This could greatly increase the potential damage of a single missile strike while simultaneously making it more difficult to intercept the deployed nuclear warheads as they close in with their various targets. This is a common approach adopted by nations like the United States, Russia, and China for their own nuclear weapons. For example, consider Russia’s positively massive RS-28 Sarmat, which can carry between 10 and 15 reentry vehicles and destroy swaths of land as large as Texas or France with a single launch, according to Russian press statements.