SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea has unveiled what it says is a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the latest apparent development in its fast-advancing weapons program.
Several of the SLBMs rolled through Pyongyang’s central Kim Il Sung Square during a nighttime military parade, state media said Friday.
Using typically flowery language, the state-run Korean Central News Agency called the missile the “world's most powerful weapon.” North Korea also showed off a new short-range missile during the parade.
Wearing a shiny black leather jacket and fur hat, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended the Thursday event, which marked the end of a major multiday meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party.
It is North Korea’s second military parade in about three months. At an October parade, North Korea showed off its largest intercontinental ballistic missile, which appears designed to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses.
The parades are a reminder that Pyongyang continues to develop new nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities despite economic hardships brought on by the coronavirus and international sanctions.
Submarine-launched missiles would add an unpredictable component to North Korea’s arsenal. They are mobile, potentially increasing the range of North Korea's ballistic missile arsenal. They are also easier to hide.
Analysts say the new SLBM, labeled Pukguksong-5, appears bigger but looks similar to the Pukguksong-4, which was unveiled at the October parade. But some caution the latest missile may still be under development.
“The appearances (of the two missiles) have few differences, so it is highly likely a mock-up -- not the real missile,” said Kim Dong Yub, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, in a Facebook post.
The rapid development of SLBM technology is puzzling to some defense experts, who point out North Korea does not currently have a functional submarine capable of shooting ballistic missiles while submerged.
“The only thing that makes sense to me is that these developments are setting the stage for a solid fuel ICBM. To me that has to be the end game here,” tweeted Vipin Narang, a nuclear specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Kim has promised to develop an ICBM using solid fuel, which would make it more easily transportable and take less time to prepare for launch.
The North’s Pukguksong family of missiles are thought to use solid fuel.
North Korea last tested an SLBM in October 2019, when it fired the Pukguksong-3 from an underwater platform. Neither the Pukguksong-4 or 5 have been tested, but some fear that could soon change.
“Instead of shooting one, they’re showing it to us. And they’re basically telling us what they intend on doing. So, the next obvious step is to demonstrate,” said retired South Korean lieutenant general Chun In-bum, an expert on North Korea’s weapons program.
North Korea in August 2019 published photos of Kim inspecting a ballistic missile submarine being built at the Sinpo South Shipyard, though it is not clear how close it is to completion.
“What we know for sure is that North Korea is continuing with its nuclear program now to include a submarine-launched ballistic missile with nuclear warheads,” Chun said.
“And with that capability they will either have a second-strike capability (the ability after being struck by a nuclear missile to strike back) or to intimidate the United States and its policies toward the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“Given North Korea’s resource limitations and the challenges involved in developing such a capability, it is likely a long way from the ability to produce even a single nuclear-powered submarine – much less the infrastructure and expertise necessary to engineer, build, train, and operationally deploy a submarine force capable of continuously holding the continental United States at risk,” Markus Garlauskas, the former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for North Korea, and former U.S. official Bruce Perry said in October.
ICBM test coming?
North Korea could instead decide to soon test another weapon, such as the massive new ICBM it rolled out in October, analysts warn.
Kim said a year ago he no longer feels bound by his self-imposed pause on nuclear and long-range missile tests, raising fears of a return to major tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Such a move would be a major foreign policy test for incoming U.S. President Joe Biden. Biden has said he won’t rule out meeting Kim face-to-face, but has suggested that would only come as part of broader, working-level negotiations.
North Korea has for months boycotted nuclear talks, frustrated at the U.S. refusal to relax sanctions. U.S. President Donald Trump met Kim three times during his presidency, but the meetings did not lead to North Korea giving up any of its nuclear weapons.