North Korea had a pretty good week. True, a missile test Sunday failed seconds after launch. But Pyongyang’s ostentatious parade the day before — held to celebrate the 105th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, founder of North Korea — was a missile-laden triumph.
The parade could be viewed as the debut of a new Asian superpower: A North Korea armed with a formidable array of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets thousands of kilometers away.
First of all, forget all the choreography of goose-stepping troops or the rows of tanks rumbling through Kim Il-Sung Square. That was just for show. No one is afraid of North Korea’s conventional armed forces, which are embarrassingly backward (except perhaps for its 13,000-plus artillery pieces, which could rain thousands of shells down on Seoul).
North Korea’s security geared to WMDs
What makes North Korea such a fearsome threat is, quite simply, a national security strategy based almost entirely on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — in this case, the combination of nuclear weapons with a growing assortment of missiles — from short-range Scuds to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and land-based and sea-launched systems.
Many of these missile systems were on display in the parade, many for the first time. These included two as-yet untested ICBMs — the KN-08 and KN-14 missiles. The KN-08, a three-stage missile that North Korea calls the Hwasong-13, has an estimated range of about 12,000 kilometers, meaning it could theoretically target the continental United States. At least three different ICBM launchers were on display.
Also on show for the first time was the Pukkuksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), also called the KN-11. The Pukkuksong is believed to have a range of more than 1,000 kilometers. A land-based version of Pukkuksong, designated the KN-15, also rolled past.
Particularly disconcerting is North Korea’s increasing use of solid-fuel propellants. Solid-fueled missiles require fewer crew members and can be readied and fired quicker than a liquid-fueled rocket (which must be slowly fueled before launch, a process that can take hours). They are also safer to transport on land-mobile systems, such as TELs (transporter-erector-launchers). North Korea currently operates at least two solid-fuel missiles, the Pukkuksong and the KN-15, and there are indications that the KN-14 is also solid-fueled.
Besides improvements in quality and capabilities, the impressive show of missiles indicates that North Korea’s production of advanced missile systems is moving at full-speed. Six Pukkuksong-1 SLBMs were on display, along with dozens of KN-08, KN-14, and KN-15 ballistic missiles. The effect was one of an impressive buildup well underway.
A would-be nuclear superpower in the offing?
What does it all mean? Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, says the parade demonstrates that “the North Koreans are serious about building a nuclear force that can threaten US forces in South Korea, Japan, and the continental United States” (this from a USA Today article).
In addition, Joseph S. Bermudez, a military analyst affiliated with the Washington-based US-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), stated in a commentary posted on the 38 North website that North Korea is particularly keen to develop a working SLBM. Ominously, he said that “assuming the current rate of development,” North Korea “is on track to develop the capability to strike targets in the region — including Japan — by 2020.”
President Donald Trump’s response so far has been to simultaneously badger and cajole China into forcing North Korea to halt its nuclear program, while at the same time threatening unilateral action. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times earlier this month. Perhaps as an indicator of Trump’s resolve, the US has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and a naval strike group into waters near North Korea.
But Trump’s response to North Korea simply underscores the brilliance of the North Korean WMD strategy. In the first place, the US Navy can sail around and signal the Kim regime, but it would be hard-pressed to take real military action. Shooting down a test missile will be tantamount to an act of war; so would attacking North Korean nuclear research and weapons sites. And neither action would do much to impair North Korea’s capabilities to develop either nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
US attack would stoke North Korean paranoia
Moreover, military action would play directly into Pyongyang’s hands. The North Koreans are already obsessed with the idea that the US wants to destroy them. A unilateral attack would only prove their fear is justified and would not only make them more intransigent, it might even trigger a war.
In addition, US unilateral military action could rupture the Western alliance and doom efforts to de-nuclearize the North. South Korea and Japan, which would likely bear the worst and most immediate brunt of any North Korean retaliation, would be angry. China would be livid.
The West is justifiably fearful of North Korea’s growing nuclear-and-missile capabilities, which is exactly what Pyongyang wants. And Trump’s few options are all bad. If he tries something rash, he simply justifies North Korea’s paranoia. If he does nothing, then all his posturing and saber-rattling makes him look foolish and amateurish. And in both cases, North Korea remains a nuclear power.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.