North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to strengthen his country’s nuclear force at the "fastest possible speed," during a nighttime military parade flaunting Pyongyang’s largest-known ballistic missiles.
Kim, who has gradually increased regional tensions with several major weapons tests, also warned during a parade speech that any country that attempts military confrontation with North Korea will be destroyed.
“The fundamental mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, but our nukes can never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent,” Kim said, implying that he could also use the weapons if provoked.
The parade, held late Monday in central Pyongyang, was part of North Korea’s celebrations on the anniversary of the founding of the country’s army.
Kim has now held four military parades in the past two years. Many analysts say the frequency of the parades could be a sign Kim faces serious domestic problems and wants to bolster political support.
State television coverage of the event, which aired late Tuesday, was highly polished by North Korean standards, interspersing sweeping parade drone shots with flashy, pre-produced features highlighting many of the weapons displayed.
Kim, whose country is among the world’s poorest, entered the event in what appeared to be a Mercedes-Benz Maybach sedan. He and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were greeted by throngs of cheering children – a mainstay of propaganda in North Korea, where three generations of Kims have been portrayed as mythical, almost god-like figures.
The parade featured some of the country’s most advanced missiles, including the Hwasong-17, its largest-known ICBM that North Korea claims to have tested last month. It was the North’s first long-range missile launch since 2017.
North Korea also showed off what it refers to as its “hypersonic” missile. The weapon, tested earlier this year, has a maneuverable warhead that makes it more difficult to intercept, but analysts say it does not likely fly at faster speeds than many ballistic missiles.
The only new weapon unveiled at the parade appeared to be a solid-fuel, submarine-launched ballistic missile, which analysts said appeared slightly longer than previous versions.
“For all the hype and months of practice, Monday's North Korean military parade didn't really show many novel capabilities,” tweeted Chad O’Carroll, a Seoul-based journalist and founder of the NK News website.
More tests soon?
U.S. officials have said they expect North Korea to soon conduct another long-range missile launch or even a nuclear test, which would significantly raise regional tensions.
North Korea has been systematically working through a wish list of strategic weapons laid out last year by Kim. The list includes tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, and ICBMs that can carry multiple warheads.
North Korea has several possible motivations for testing missiles, including shoring up domestic political support, ensuring the performance of new weapons, demonstrating deterrence, and provoking the United States and its allies.
In the coming months, many analysts expect North Korea to use its oft-repeated strategy of trying to create a sense of crisis on the Korean Peninsula to gain leverage for future negotiations with the United States.
“If Kim Jong Un is using the same tactic this year, then we have to wait until the end of this year with the expectation that Kim…is going to do everything to…keep the security conditions on the Korean Peninsula as dangerous as possible as it did in 2017,” said Bong Young-shik with Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.
In 2017, Kim and former U.S. president Donald Trump exchanged threats of nuclear war, before Kim eventually decided to engage in a series of unprecedented talks the following year. However, the Trump-Kim negotiations broke down in 2019 over disagreements on how to pace sanctions relief with steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.
Under U.S. President Joe Biden, North Korea has rejected or ignored invitations to return to talks.
“No matter how much political, economic, diplomatic incentives might be given to the North Korean regime, there’s no good way of reducing the obsession of the leadership in North Korea with nuclear warheads and long-range missiles as the best and most reliable means of its own security and survival,” said Bong.
South Korea’s incoming president, former chief prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, has vowed a tougher approach to the North. In a statement, Yoon’s transition team said the parade proved North Korea aims to threaten peace in Korea, the region, and the world.
“North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have become a serious and realistic threat to us, so building the capability to deter them is the most urgent task,” read the statement.
As part of that effort, Yoon has promised to resume full-scale joint military exercises with the United States. Since 2018, the drills had been spread out or scaled down to preserve the chances for diplomacy and because of the coronavirus pandemic.