TOKYO — North Korea showed off what appeared to be a huge, new inter-continental ballistic missile at a military parade Saturday, although leader Kim Jong Un stressed the deterrent nature of the weaponry on display — and even held out an olive branch to neighbor South Korea.
The military parade, marking the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, featured a vast array of modernized military systems, from small arms through antitank and air- defense systems. The most closely watched, however, was what looked to be four huge, new liquid-fueled ICBMs, rolling through the main square in Pyongyang on 11-axle vehicles.
Military experts — monitoring the parade through North Korean video — said the new missile would be one of the largest road-mobile ICBMs in the world if it becomes operational, and could represent the threatened new “strategic weapon” Kim had talked of at the start of this year.
Unusually, the parade took place after midnight, and was then shown on Korean Central Television Television on Saturday evening. Bright lights lit up the vast Kim Il Sung Square, fireworks exploded in the sky and thousands of soldiers cheered and chanted in unison in a powerful display of political and military theater.
Kim Jong Un, dressed in a light gray Western-style suit and tie, spoke to a vast crowd about the hardships his country has faced this year: COVID-19, floods and typhoons and international sanctions.
With a flourish of drama — even appearing to be close to tears — he thanked the military for their efforts to fight the coronavirus and rebuild from natural disasters, and apologized that he had not been able to deliver greater economic rewards to his people, given the challenges.
For the international community, Kim’s message was: North Korea was a military force to be reckoned with, but not a threat.
“Our military powers have developed and evolved to an extent that no one else can dream of or amount to,” he said, speaking from a grand new marble podium. “We have deterrent power that can sufficiently deter and control any military threats that we are facing and will face.”
State-of-the art weapons systems meant not invading force could ever target “our holy nation,” he said, but explained: “I definitely do not want our military powers to be used against anyone. I clarify that we are not strengthening our war deterrence against anyone specific.”
The array of relatively modern array of weapons systems also illustrated that, despite its economic hardships and sanctions, North Korea was continuing to invest in and develop its military might at a rapid pace.
“The parade culminated in the reveal of the largest road-mobile missile we’ve ever seen in North Korea and, quite frankly, the largest liquid-fueled road-mobile missile anywhere,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “North Korea wants to remove any shred of doubt that it’s technically capable of ranging the U.S. homeland.”
North Korea last tested an ICBM in 2017, the Hwasong-15, which is thought to have a range of 8,000 miles and Pyongyang says is capable of reaching the entire continental United States.
Experts stressed that the new, even larger missile had not yet been tested, and said they would have to examine the images shown on state television more closely before reaching firmer conclusions.
But they had little doubt they had seen a significant advance in North Korea’s weaponry.
“First, it’s huge. Really really big. So big that it would need a huge amount of thrust to get off the ground,” said Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network.
“The obvious take-away from the girth of the missile is that it is intended to hold multiple nuclear warheads,” she added. “This is scary because for each missile they launch there can be multiple warheads making the US’ already ineffective missile defense systems irrelevant.”
But the dramatic parade contrasted with a much less threatening speech from Kim.
There was no direct mention of the United States, with experts noting Kim had use the term “war deterrent” rather than “nuclear deterrent,” in an apparent softening of his rhetoric.
“Kim’s speech was tame and seemed to almost deliberately avoid provoking Trump before the election, while achieving domestic aims to strengthen unity,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Experts say Kim would probably prefer a Trump rather than a Biden victory in the election, having met the current U.S. president three times and apparently developed a rapport.
Most of Kim’s speech was aimed at a domestic audience and was concerned with the difficult year his country has faced.
“We are the only country to face the hardship of emergency disease control and natural disaster recovery amid a chronic shortage of everything due to the cruel and prolonged sanctions,” he said. “My comrades have put faith in me, but I have not come up with a due reward, for which I am shameful”:
Television images showed women in the crowd and soldiers crying with emotion as Kim spoke, and at one point he appeared to be in tears himself.
“Tearing up and showing humility reminded us once again of his great showmanship,” said Duyeon Kim at CNAS. “He really knows how to tug at his people’s heartstrings, motivate hard work, and elicit loyalty emotionally.”
Later, though, Kim was shown smiling and laughing as he talked to officials, apparently in good spirits.
He claimed that not a single North Korean had fallen victim to COVID-19, thanking the military profusely for its efforts in disease control and disaster reconstruction. North Korea’s army, which often performs civilian duties, closed the border with China to prevent the virus entering, and restricted movement within the country.
Kim also held out a surprising olive branch to the South.
“I am so thankful that everyone of our people are healthy and well,” he said. “I wish good health to everyone around the world who is battling the virus.”
“I also send warm regards to the Southern brethren with the same wish,” he added. “I look forward to the day when we will triumph over the health crisis and the North and the South will hold hands together.”
North Korea’s relations with South Korea have nose-dived since the collapse Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim in 2019, culminating in North Korea blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in the town of Kaesong in June.
Experts said that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has worked hard to foster closer ties between the two Koreas, will have been excited by those words and will hope they could presage a renewal of cooperation between the neighbors.
But viewers of Saturday’s parade were left in no doubt that North Korea is still investing very heavily in the military and sticking to its nuclear program, despite promises made to Trump in Singapore in 2018, experts said.
“The bottom line is that the parade announces loudly to the world that Kim’s commitment at the Singapore Summit to work ‘toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ is very much on hold and, despite sanctions, he keeps on managing investments in his nuclear deterrent,” Panda said.
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Min Joo Kim reported from Seoul.