The military parade to mark the birthday of Kim IL Sung was quite the occasion, with what appeared to be two new types of ICBM on parade on top of the KN-08 limited range ICBM or IRBM, the Musudan MRBM, the Pukguksong-2 MRBM and the Pukguksong-1 SLBM.
North Korea is primed and ready to conduct a sixth nuclear test, but appears to have forgone that option for Kim IL Sung’s birthday. It is 313pm Pyongyang time as I write so that still remains a possibility.
I will focus here on the two, apparent, new ICBMs. We did not see, should they exist, the missiles themselves. We saw two different Transport Erector Lauchers (TELs) and their canisters. The size of each was consistent with an ICBM, however what was inside the canisters, if anything, remains unknown.
One of the ICBM TEL and canister appeared to be much like the Russian Topol ICBM, and the second like China’s DF-31 ICBM. This suggests to us that North Korea has been working on developing a three-stage solid fuelled ICBM.
Both the Russian Topol and Chinese DF-31 are three stage solid fuelled ICBMs.
It would appear, then, that North Korea has decided upon developing road mobile solid fuelled ICBMs, which enhances survivability and so the credibility of its strategic nuclear deterrent. Quite why North Korea has, seemingly, decided upon two different ICBM designs remains a mystery.
We also saw the Pukguksong-1 and 2 on parade for the first time. The Pukguksong-2 demonstrated to us that North Korea has the capability to cold launch solid fuelled missiles from road mobile canisters. When North Korea flight tested the Pukguksong-2, successfully, Pyongyang announced that it would shift its missile programme toward developing solid fuelled missiles especially for longer range contingencies.
That said, North Korea did appear to recently test the liquid fuelled Musudan MRBM from Wonsan, another spectacular failure exploding seconds after launch, and the Musudan, albeit on a KN-08 TEL, did make an appearance at the parade.
The Pukguksong-1 is of significance because it is submarine launched. North Korea does have old diesel powered submarines but in a recent paper by Ted Postol and Markus Schiller it was argued that these submarines, when deployed in the Yellow Sea, are survivable, i.e. can evade ASW capabilities, and are able to attack targets in South Korea at angles that Terminal High Altitude Area Defense BMD cannot match.
Taken collectively the 2017 “day of the sun” parade, seemingly, provides North Korea with a ballistic missile force consistent with a comprehensive regional and intercontinental strategic nuclear deterrence capability. South Korea, Japan, US military bases in Guam, and the continental United States are all, potentially, within range of North Korea’s strategic nuclear arsenal. That is what I mean by “comprehensive strategic nuclear deterrence” in the North Korean context.
Now it is at this point that three issues or questions loom. The first is, is North Korea bluffing? North Korea in the past has used mock ups in military parades and the KN-08 nor the two ICBMs have been tested. We do not know what is in the two new ICBM canisters, nor what the KN-08 is capable of. The two new canisters mounted on new TELs could have been empty. During the cold war the Soviet Union under Khrushchev used military parades to exaggerate its strategic capabilities in a game of bluff. North Korea could be doing the same as a means to pressure the US to open diplomatic negotiations on the future of the Korean peninsula.
This cannot be excluded. There was nothing about today’s parade that forecloses this hypothesis.
The second is what will happen now regarding ballistic missile defence. There exists a current of opinion in the US calling for the expansion of BMD capabilities, including a third GMD site. Advances in North Korean ballistic missile capabilities have been accompanied by further BMD deployments, and this is a pattern that may well continue.
Third is the issue of diplomatic negotiations. Opening up high level bilateral talks between North Korea and the US is the most rational policy option, but it is one that appears to have been rejected by the Trump administration. North Korean actions we know about, but not many know that recently the US deployed B-1 bombers as part of the massive Foal Eagle exercises which was described as an act of nuclear deterrence by US commanders. We have seen the US move to deploy an aircraft carrier battle group to the region, and President Trump speak of “powerful” submarines doubtless referring to the Ohio class SSBN.
Earlier this week the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Siegfried Hecker, made a strong case for reopening diplomatic dialogue with North Korea.
Either North Korea will rely upon a comprehensive strategic nuclear deterrent to undergird its position in Northeast Asia or some form of regional and great power modus vivendi reached with North Korea will do so.
The latter is much to be preferred than the former.
The current trajectory risks a nuclear conflict. I have argued for years that we are sleepwalking to catastrophe on the Korean peninsula, but that is no longer the case as we head to the precipice with eyes well and truly wide open. Despite that we are still marching toward catastrophe only now with added pace. The current approach of sanctions, diplomatic isolation, augmenting BMD, and building up military forces in situ does little to enhance regional or global security.
Should North Korea develop an operationally deployed comprehensive strategic nuclear deterrent the annual Foal Eagle exercises could provide the catalyst leading to nuclear war, much as Able Archer 83 almost had done during the cold war.
There is much to be concerned about regarding current strategic trends, and not just in Northeast Asia.
Updated. I’ve been thinking about the matter of mock ups. One of the ICBMs paraded was the limited range ICBM (or IRBM analysis varies) KN-08. The KN-08 is a three stage liquid fuelled missile. Now Postol and Schiller argued previously that a three stage liquid fuelled, road mobile, ICBM is irrational. Liquid fuelled ICBMs are always two stages, and a liquid fuelled road mobile ICBM makes little military sense. They argue that the KN-08, therefore, is a mockup for political effect. Assuming so, that makes one ICBM paraded today a mockup. That’s going on Postol and Schiller’s reasoning. Now one of the two paraded looks as if its the KN-14. That’s a two stage liquid fuelled ICBM. Two stages is better, but it’s still road mobile so going by Postol and Schiller there’s a good chance that this too was a mockup. That’s two out of three. So, again going by Postol and Schiller’s reasoning, either all three were mockups or we really only saw one ICBM today.