North Korea’s display of new, dangerous weapons on Saturday made one thing perfectly clear: Over the last four years, President Donald Trump has failed to curb the nuclear threat from Pyongyang.
Trump made a big bet that meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times and sending him flattering letters might convince Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear and missile arsenals once and for all. But during the country’s 75th annual military parade celebrating the founding of its ruling party, Kim made sure to signal to the entire world that Trump has made no progress on that front. In fact, matters have only gotten worse.
Among other revelations, North Korea showed off a large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could potentially overwhelm US defenses; more trucks from which to shoot ICBMs than previously known; and more advanced shorter-range rockets to more precisely threaten South Korea.
Which means North Korea now has a greater ability to threaten America and its regional allies today than it did when Trump entered office. Trump is by no means the first president to fall short of reversing Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, but he’s now the latest.
According to a source familiar with his comments, Trump has been telling White House aides he’s “really angry about [North Korea’s] missile parade” and “really disappointed” in Kim personally. But that same person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal discussions, noted Trump is unlikely to change his stance toward North Korea unless it tests a new ICBM or a nuclear device.
INFOGRAPHIC: How does North Korea’s latest military parade compare, by the numbers?
The data is startling: Saturday’s parade saw by far the biggest range of new equipment to ever be introduced at a military parade in North Korean history.https://t.co/CuwPGjg2Po pic.twitter.com/lFgwyw1quR
— NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) October 11, 2020
Perhaps to assuage Trump’s and the world’s concerns, Kim noted the intentions of the buildup during a speech to open the parade.
“We will continue to strengthen the war deterrent, the righteous self-defense means, so as to contain and control all the dangerous attempts and intimidatory acts by the hostile forces, including their sustained and aggravating nuclear threat,” Kim, dressed in a gray Western-style suit, said, clearly referring to the United States. Such weapons “will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike.”
“But, if, and if, any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them,” he continued.
Put together, experts say Kim aimed to convey that his nation is more prepared than ever to defend itself and, if necessary, fight back — but only if attacked first. He’s threading a needle in the hope of improving his arsenal while minimizing public backlash.
That play may have mostly worked: Leaders in South Korea and Japan have conveyed their displeasure publicly, but Trump — who seems content with the status quo as long as North Korea doesn’t test these weapons — hasn’t said anything openly about the parade.
Some experts say there’s still an opportunity to improve the situation. “Both sides need to take even greater conciliatory steps to overcome the growing trust deficit caused by the security spiral,” said Frank Aum, the senior expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC.
If the US and North Korea don’t, there could be a repeat of 2017’s “fire and fury” era in the next four years — but this time with Pyongyang in possession of more lethal weaponry.
“The temperature is down because Trump is happy to live in denial,” MIT nuclear strategy expert Vipin Narang told me. “The problem with that is when the temperature inevitably turns back up.”
The main three weapons North Korea displayed, and their dangers, explained
The October 10 parade commemorated the 75th year of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which has outlasted the Soviet Union’s 74 years as a nation. During recent iterations, this annual celebration has provided Kim the chance to showcase not only his hold on power, as his father and grandfather did before him, but also the new weapons he has to safeguard that power.
The 2020 event was no different, save for it confusingly taking place at night instead of during the day (it’s still unclear exactly why). But this year’s display was one of the most troubling in years because of what North Korea’s military rolled through the streets of Pyongyang.
Let’s take each in turn.
A new intercontinental ballistic missile
In December 2019, Kim promised his nation a “new strategic weapon” — which experts interpreted as code for a bigger, more capable missile to deliver a nuclear weapon to targets nearby, or even as far away as the United States.
He finally unveiled the promised weapon this past weekend, and, well, just look at it.
Experts say the four showcased missiles are the biggest ever seen in North Korea. But more than that, they are the largest road-mobile missiles with their own truck-based launchers in the entire world. This means that, in case of a war, North Korea’s military could roll these missiles out of underground bunkers, place them somewhere on land, and shoot them at the United States.
However, the missile is propelled by liquid, so it needs to be fueled before launch. That probably gives US defenses enough time to track the missile and destroy it before it ever gets off the ground. “North Korea is betting that ‘probably’ won’t be very reassuring to US leaders in a crisis where US cities are at risk of nuclear attack in defense of an ally,” Georgetown University’s Caitlin Talmadge, whose research focuses in part on nuclear deterrence and escalation, tweeted Saturday.
(North Korea did display a missile that looks like it’s propelled by solid fuel, meaning it’s ready to launch right out of the gate, which shows the country is getting better at making those, too.)
Why would North Korea want to make such a big ICBM, though, especially when it already tested one in 2017 that theoretically could strike America? Most analysts suspect its bigger size allows it to hold multiple bombs, roughly three or four (along with decoys, perhaps), which could overwhelm US missile defenses. The US has just 44 ground-based interceptors (missiles) in Alaska and California to shoot weapons out of the sky, using four interceptors to destroy each individual warhead.
If North Korea wanted to shoot 12 missiles with one warhead on top, the missile defense system is already overwhelmed. But why do that when you could shoot three missiles, each with four warheads attached to it?
If the US wanted to beef up the number of interceptors at its disposal, experts note it’ll cost a lot of money. “Each one of these missiles that North Korea builds will cost the US about $1 billion to defend against,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, tweeted Saturday. “At that cost, I am pretty sure North Korea can add warheads faster than we can add interceptors.”
If each new North Korean ICBM can carry 3-4 warheads, we would need about 12-16 interceptors for each missile. (The GMD system salvo fires 4 interceptors at each warhead.) The last time the US bought 14 interceptors, it cost … $1 billion. https://t.co/SUmIL2P4If
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) October 10, 2020
Importantly, the new ICBM — likely to be named the Hwasong-16, since it’s the latest ICBM after North Korea’s Hwasong-15 — hasn’t been tested yet. It’s possible it may have issues that North Korea still needs to fix.
That’s why many experts predict Pyongyang will probably test the massive weapon in early 2021, in part to see how it goes and to also send a message to whoever is in the White House for the next four years: North Korea is a nuclear power, and you can’t do anything about it.
All of that is scary enough, but another revelation may actually be the biggest and most troubling news.
More trucks from which to shoot ICBMs — and, potentially, the ability to make more
Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network, tweeted that the biggest news from the parade wasn’t the four new ICBMs but rather the four trucks carrying them.
Here’s why: Until Saturday, experts could only confirm that North Korea had six total truck-erected launchers (TELs) — that is, trucks that serve as a platform for shooting missiles — for ICBMs. But the parade featured four trucks carrying the new ICBM and another four with a previously unveiled ICBM on top. That’s eight, which last I checked was more than six.
And by the looks of them, they’re different from those North Korea had imported from China. Simply put, the newer TELs have more axles — the number of sets of wheels — than the older versions.
Scott LaFoy, a satellite-imagery and ballistic-missile analyst based in Virginia, said this implies two things: Either North Korea is somehow importing trucks or truck parts from and making changes to suit their needs, or it’s gained the ability to produce these trucks locally.
If it’s the latter, and there’s evidence to that effect, it’s a big deal. Indeed, satellite imagery suggests North Korea has built factories to produce the missile-launching trucks at home, avoiding the need to buy them from China or someplace else.
If that’s the case, North Korea could conceivably make the same number of TELs as ICBMs in its arsenal — if it doesn’t have them already. “Their ICBM arsenal is, hypothetically, not constrained by a lack of launchers,” said LaFoy. “So long as North Korea opts to launch its ICBMs from trucks, then being able to make trucks means being able to make more ICBMs.”
Which means North Korea could be capable — either today or in the near future — of scattering and preparing multiple ICBMs to launch off of trucks during a crisis, lowering the likelihood the US or South Korea could destroy them all before they take flight.
Improved shorter-range missiles that threaten South Korea
Although North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs get all the attention, a seriously underappreciated threat comes from its arsenal of conventional weapons, including the world’s largest artillery force.
South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, is a so-called “megacity” with a whopping 25 million residents living in the greater metropolitan area. It also happens to be within direct firing range of thousands of pieces of North Korean artillery already lined up along the border, also known as the Demilitarized Zone. According to the National Interest, by some estimates Seoul could “be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.”
The biggest critique of North Korea’s shorter-range missiles has been that they are old, creaky, and unreliable. Kim set out to allay those fears, showing his military has also spent ample time beefing up those weapons along with the longer-range nuclear ones.
LaFoy told me these weapons, especially the multiple launch rocket systems pictured above, are “more precise” because of enhanced GPS and “augment or replace older artillery pieces.” In other words, North Korea now has more reliable weapons with which to destroy Seoul and kill hundreds of thousands of people in days if it so chose.
The message was unmistakable: North Korea doesn’t need to use its nuclear weapons to threaten South Korea and the 25,000 US troops stationed in the country.
All this means Trump’s boast that he ended the threat from North Korea is just that: a boast. If anything, he led the US during a massive expansion of Pyongyang’s military and nuclear power, with little indication of a reversal any time soon.
Some experts, like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Jessica Lee, say there’s still a chance for progress. “North Korea has always used external threats to justify its nuclear program,” she told me. “The more the United States acts like a threat, the more it will legitimize the North Korean regime’s nuclear buildup.”
But if the parade is any indication, North Korea will remain a threat to the US, South Korea, and Japan — regardless of America’s position.
Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today from as little as $3.