TOKYO — Four months after Barack Obama took office as U.S. president, North Korea catapulted itself to the top of the diplomatic agenda with its second nuclear test. Now less than a month before the latest U.S. election, North Korea has given whoever wins advance notice: in 2021, it is certain to be back in the headlines, and likely to be a headache.
The reason: a massive, new intercontinental ballistic paraded through the streets of Pyongyang on Saturday that served as a chilling reminder that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is a very real threat to the U.S. homeland.
“What I think the North Koreans are saying is that they are committed to spending the money to build systems that can beat our missile defenses,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. “Maybe a lot of them won’t get through, but some of them will, and, you know, we won’t like that.”
At Saturday’s military parade, North Korea unveiled a range of modern military equipment that has never been seen before, from small arms to masks designed for chemical warfare, and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. But the climax was the sight of a new ICBM, carried on an 11-axle vehicle, one of the largest road-mobile liquid-fueled ballistic missiles ever made.
In a speech before the parade, North Korea leader Kim Jong Un said that the country’s military forces were meant as a deterrent and were not aimed “at anyone specific.” But experts said the hardware on display told a different story.
“Of course, the target is clearly the United States,” said Lee Ho-ryung, a researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “There’s no need for North Korea develop a bigger and stronger ICBM if it’s truly intended for self-defense only.”
In the past, North Korea has sometimes paraded missiles that looked more like mock-ups than the genuine article, and it has occasionally taken months or even years for the missiles to be tested after they were shown.
On Monday, South Korea’s military expressed concern but said it was still trying to determine if the new ICBM was the real thing. The Institute for National Security Strategy, affiliated to Seoul’s spy agency, said the fact the missile had not yet been tested showed it was “intended more as a political showoff than for actual battle usage.”
But independent experts said the missile looked genuine, and probably represented the “new strategic weapon” Kim had boasted about at the turn of the year — the product of a renewed focus on developing missile technology.
The previously largest ICBM, the Hwasong-15, was tested in November 2017, and has a predicted range of around 8,000 miles, meaning it could already reach the entire continental United States. The new missile is longer and thicker, meaning it could potentially carry more fuel and/or bigger engines.
“Because they don’t need to go any farther, this is really about putting more weight in the payload,” said Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network.
In other words, Hanham says, this is a missile designed to carry either multiple nuclear warheads, or what experts call “penetration aids,” decoys that confuse defense interceptor missiles such as chaff or reflective balloons.
The United States and Russia have produced much larger solid-fueled ICBMs stored in silos, but North Korea prefers the mobility and unpredictability of transportable liquid-fueled rockets.
This approach does have drawbacks, though: the liquid propellant is volatile, and the missile would normally only be fueled just before firing. The fueling process involves time, people and a convoy of fuel trucks, giving the United States a window to destroy it on the ground.
“The huge liquid-fueled ICBM is certainly cumbersome and dangerous to operate — and prone to preemption — but it is still better for North Korea than a fixed, silo-based ICBM, whose location would be known to the United States at all times,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Panda said his preliminary analysis showed the missile could potentially carry three or four of North Korea’s nuclear warheads. That presents a massive security headache to the United States, and a huge financial burden to its missile defense system based in Alaska.
“The way the system in Alaska works is they fire four interceptors at every warhead,” said Lewis. “They don’t have a high confidence they will work, so if they fire four on one, they will have a 97 percent chance or whatever.”
In other words, just three of the missiles on display on Saturday would require 12 interceptors, with a less than perfect chance the interception would work. The last time Obama ordered 14 interceptors, it cost around $1 billion, Lewis said, meaning it is “much cheaper for North Korea to add warheads than for the U.S. to add interceptors.”
It is impossible to say when North Korea might test its new, monster ICBM. In April 2018, it declared a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, but Kim said at the end of last year that he no longer felt bound by that promise.
Having failed to get what it wanted during President Donald Trump’s first term, North Korea appears to be turning up the heat, in what is a familiar cycle of escalation followed by demands for concessions.
“We’re back to that period where the North Koreans are saying: ‘Well, you don’t want to give us what we want. We can go and make your life miserable,’” Lewis said.
The Washington Post’s Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.