Pyongyang is likely to unveil or launch several missile systems to celebrate a major upcoming holiday, but stop short of a nuclear or intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) test. North Korea’s display will highlight its continuing success at creating a more difficult to detect and deadly nuclear force to threaten U.S. allies and the American homeland.
North Korea may parade (and possibly launch) the Pukgugksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Or it may reveal indigenously-produced ICBM transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), and/or a new ICBM. Regardless, what North Korea seeks is not so much to influence the U.S. presidential election, but to emphasize its military strength to enhance the cost of any future negotiations.
Yet, Pyongyang may well be saving its biggest provocative cards for after the U.S. election. North Korea has often conducted strong provocative acts in the first year of a U.S. or South Korean administration. The regime believes such acts give them stronger leverage to force concessions.
North Korea marks major holidays by holding massive military parades, particularly on significant anniversaries, where new weapons systems are revealed. October 10 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Workers’ Party, one of the country’s most important holidays.
Signs of forthcoming missile activity are occurring at the Sinpo Shipyard and the Mirim Parade Training Ground, the staging point for North Korea’s military parades. Sinpo is where North Korea’s current and future missile-launching submarines are built, and SLBM launches have taken place nearby. According to U.S. officials, satellite imagery showed a SLBM and submersible launcher at Sinpo in late September. A North Korean source told Daily NK that Sinpo is “currently rushing to finish final preparations for a ballistic test [launch].”
At the Mirim parade ground, North Korea constructed several large vehicle storage buildings that are large enough to house road-mobile launchers for ICBMs. It has also reinforced a bridge along the parade route. U.S. officials reported seeing two to four new improved ICBM TELs on satellite imagery.
SLBM Launch—Flashier But Less Important
A Pukguksong-3 SLBM launch from a submerged test barge would grab attention, but it was already done last November. The missile was flown in an elevated trajectory to avoid flying over Japan but demonstrated it could have flown to a 2,000 km range, putting South Korea and Japan at nuclear risk from another missile system.
But President Donald Trump downplayed the event, and the United States took no steps to respond to another North Korean violation of U.N. resolutions that preclude any missile test, regardless of range. Indeed, Washington dismissed North Korea’s 26 missile launches in 2019, a record high number of U.N. violations in a year, and refrained from imposing additional sanctions against the regime.
If North Korea launched the missile from a more-advanced Sinpo-C submarine that has been under construction, it would reflect another successful step forward. To be sure, a viable North Korean SLBM capability would expand the threat, particularly since South Korea is vulnerable to missile attacks from its maritime flanks.
South Korea does not currently have defenses against SLBMs. The THAAD ballistic missile defense system radar is limited to a 120-degree view directed toward North Korea, precluding it from protecting against SLBMs arriving from either the East or West Seas. The SM-2 missile currently deployed on South Korean destroyers only provides protection against anti-ship missiles. South Korea has expressed interest in the U.S.-developed SM-3 or SM-6 ship-borne systems to provide ship-borne ballistic missile defense, but they are not yet deployed.
Growing ICBM Threat
However, a more strategic, destabilizing development would be North Korea demonstrating the ability to indigenously produce ICBM TELs and/or a more advanced ICBM. To date, Pyongyang’s ability to deploy ICBMs to the field has been restricted by a limited number of TELs.
The regime imported six large eight-axle Chinese heavy logging trucks in 2011 and converted them to missile TELs. Since then, the same limited number of vehicles was seen transporting several different ICBMs in parades during 2012-2018. In the most recent iteration, Pyongyang added a ninth axle to five of the vehicles to accommodate the large Hwasong-15 ICBM, while other ICBMs were now relegated to large trucks.
North Korea realized the limitations to its nuclear war-fighting doctrine imposed by having limited TELs. In 2017, leader Kim Jong Un declared that North Korea could indigenously produce “as many as the country wants” of the nine-axle Hwasong-15 ICBM launch vehicle. Kim directed in 2018 that “the nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”
Satellite imagery showed North Korea has expanded and refined manufacturing facilities for fissile material, ballistic missiles, and Hwasong-15 TELs. North Korea continued production of ICBMs and Hwasong-15 TELs.
If North Korea paraded a large number of ICBMs carried on indigenously-produced TELS, it would have several disquieting ramifications. First, it would clearly demonstrate that the North Korean nuclear threat was not gone, as Trump declared after the 2018 Singapore summit with Kim.
During the past five years, North Korea accelerated its development, production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons and missiles. Pyongyang is producing a new generation of advanced missiles that are more accurate, difficult to target, and with a greater ability to evade allied missile defenses.
More TELS gives Pyongyang a larger nuclear strike force as well as a larger survivable retaliatory force, both of which mean the North Korean nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland has grown. U.S. ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California could protect against a limited ICBM attack while allied forces sought to attack ICBM launchers before they reloaded. However, a larger deployed ICBM force that could be fired at once might overwhelm U.S. missile defenses. Such an ICBM force could also cause U.S. decision-makers greater trepidation in responding to a North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan.
A New ICBM?
In December 2019, Kim warned that North Korea would reveal “a new strategic weapon in the near future.” Earlier that month, North Korea conducted two separate tests of a large rocket engine that burned twice as long as the Hwasong-15 ICBM had done during previous tests. After the tests, Pyongyang announced the tests would “further bolster up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”
Experts assessed that Pyongyang might be developing a high-thrust engine for more powerful rockets, possibly a solid-fueled ICBM. Such a long-range missile would be more survivable in the field since it would not require accompanying fuel vehicles, as with the current liquid-fueled ICBMs, and could be launched more quickly. A larger ICBM could also contain multiple nuclear warheads or penetration aids to evade missile defenses.
But Not Stepping Over a Red Line
While any of these actions would represent a greater nuclear threat to the U.S. and its allies, Pyongyang is less likely to conduct a nuclear or ICBM flight test despite earlier threats to do so.
Since last year, Pyongyang has repeatedly warned it might take provocative action before the U.S. presidential election, such as saying “the U.S. had better hold its tongue…not only for U.S. interests but also for the easy holding of upcoming presidential election.” The regime vowed to “shift to a shocking actual action to make [the United States] pay for the pains sustained by our people.” Kim Jong Un also announced that he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.
But Pyongyang would be uncertain how Trump would react to Kim breaking his pledge against nuclear and missile tests. Such an action could trigger a return to “fire and fury” rhetoric and resumed U.S. threats of a preventive attack. Such tests could also disrupt the potential for an agreement in the near-term. Trump recently announced “we’ll make deals with North Korea very quickly” if re-elected.
North Korea’s upcoming celebrations will feature pageantry, elaborate displays of military prowess to impress and intimidate, and the potential for much more provocative and dangerous actions after the U.S. election.
This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat