What appear to be submarine-launched ballistic missiles are shown off during a military parade celebrating the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

Nuclear-armed North Korea unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile at a military parade in Pyongyang, state media reported Friday, in a show of strength days before Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president.

The parade came after the five-yearly congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, at which leader Kim Jong Un decried the US as his country’s “foremost principal enemy”.

“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missile, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” the official KCNA news agency said.

Pictures showed at least four of the missiles with black-and-white cones being driven past flag-waving crowds, and Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment said it was a previously unseen weapon.

“New year, new Pukguksong,” he tweeted, using the name for the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Kim oversaw the display, which included rockets with a “powerful striking capability for thoroughly annihilating enemies in a preemptive way outside the territory”, KCNA said – implying a range extending beyond the Korean peninsula.

Images showed the parade ending with what appeared to be a new solid-fuel short-range ballistic missile– more mobile and more quickly deployed than liquid-fueled versions. 

“They’d like us to notice that they’re getting more proficient with larger solid rocket boosters,” Panda tweeted.

Analysts say the North is using the congress to send Washington’s incoming administration a message of strength in an attempt to extract concessions.

Kim and Donald Trump had a tumultuous relationship, engaging in mutual insults and threats of war before an extraordinary diplomatic bromance featuring headline-grabbing summits and declarations of love by the outgoing US president.

But little substantive progress was made, with the process deadlocked after a February 2019 summit in Hanoi broke down over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.

The North is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

At the same time, it is under a self-imposed coronavirus blockade, having closed its borders last January to protect against the virus that first emerged in neighbouring China, adding to the pressure on its moribund economy.

The change of leadership in Washington presents a challenge for Pyongyang. Biden is associated with the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach and characterised Kim as a “thug” during the presidential debates.

The US is expected to return to more orthodox diplomatic approaches under Biden, such as insisting on extensive progress at working-level talks before any leaders’ summit can be considered.

Nuclear submarine

Pyongyang has poured vast resources into its weapons programs, which have made rapid progress under Kim and which it says it needs to defend itself against a possible US invasion.

“The majestic elite units and invincible iron-clad ranks of the Republic which will proudly pass Kim Il Sung Square represent our absolute power,” North Korean defense minister Kim Jong Gwan said in a speech ahead of the Thursday evening parade, KCNA reported.

The display also included infantry troops, artillery, tanks, and a flypast with aircraft forming the number “8” to commemorate the congress, it said.

But the North is carefully calibrating its messaging and neither the KCNA description nor the images included any intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), suggesting that the parade was on a smaller scale than the North’s previous such display in October.

At that time, it showed off a huge new ICBM on an 11-axle vehicle that analysts said was the largest road-mobile, liquid-fuelled missile in the world.

At the congress, Kim said the North had completed plans for a nuclear-powered submarine – something that would change the strategic balance if built and put into service.