By Kelsey Davenport
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boasted in October that Pyongyang’s strengthened nuclear deterrent is sufficient to address threats posed by hostile forces. His comments were bolstered by the display of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) during an Oct. 11 parade in Pyongyang.
The missile, dubbed the Hwasong-16, is significantly larger than the ICBMs North Korea has displayed and tested in the past. Its inclusion in the parade does not come as a complete surprise, as Kim previewed the existence of a “new strategic weapon” in an address during the plenary meeting of the Workers Party of Korea in December 2019.
In his parade remarks, Kim said North Korea has built “a deterrent with which we can satisfactorily control and manage any military threats that we are facing or may face” and that he will “enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish” any forces that infringe on the country’s security.
It is unclear if Kim was referring to the new ICBM or the missiles tested in 2017. Although Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles are technically capable of targeting the United States, their reliability would be questionable given that Pyongyang has conducted so few tests and none on a standard trajectory. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)
Pyongyang has not announced plans to test the Hwasong-16. North Korea has displayed long-range missiles in the past that have not been tested, raising questions about whether the missile is intended for deployment or only for propaganda.
Similar to the Hwasong-15, the new system appears to be a two-stage, liquid-fueled ballistic missile that would be powerful enough to target the entire continental United States. Unlike the Hwasong-15, analysts suggest that the Hwasong-16 is large enough to carry several warheads.
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an NK News briefing on Oct. 11 that it is “logical” for North Korea to invest in a missile capable of carrying multiple warheads because the approach is less expensive than fielding more missiles.
North Korea may be interested in a multiple-warhead capability to overwhelm U.S. homeland missile defenses, which have about a 50 percent success rate against a single incoming ICBM. North Korea has never successfully tested a reentry vehicle, but a missile with multiple warheads would increases the chances of warheads evading missile defenses.
Kim also said that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent “will never be abused or used as a means for preemptive strike.”
Despite North Korea’s weapons display, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued to assert on Oct. 14 that U.S. negotiations with North Korea in 2018 and 2019 “certainly led to reduced risk.”
He emphasized the importance of ensuring North Korea cannot test its missiles to make sure they are “actually functional.”
North Korea declared a voluntary long-range missile and nuclear testing moratorium in April 2018. Kim declared an end to the moratorium in December 2019, but the country has not tested a long-range missile. It has resumed testing of shorter-range systems, including several new systems that were included in the Oct. 11 parade.
Contradicting Pompeo, former National Security Advisor John Bolton told CNBC on Oct. 14 that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “failed diplomacy” with North Korea “wasted a lot of time,” allowing the country to perfect its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
Bolton, who participated in meetings between Trump and Kim in February 2019 in Hanoi, said the situation is “more dangerous now” because of the progress North Korea has made over the past several years.
In the parade, North Korea also demonstrated advances in its ability to deploy its ICBMs. The Hwasong-16 was carried by an 11-axle transport erector launcher (TEL), making it the largest road-mobile ICBM in the world.
The size of the TEL is notable because North Korea’s other ICBMs require eight- or nine-axle vehicles to transport them.
North Korea is known to have purchased six eight-axle TELs from China in 2010 in violation of UN sanctions. North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear attack using its ICBMs and the size of its ICBM arsenal is generally thought to be limited, in part because it possesses so few TELs large enough for the missiles.
Melissa Hanham, deputy director of the Open Nuclear Network, noted in an Oct. 11 article for the BBC that the parade was the first time that North Korea has displayed more than six ICBM TELs. She said that the TELs were heavily modified and concluded that North Korea has built up its ability to manufacture and produce its own TELs and procure parts for the vehicles despite sanctions.
Hanham, a North Korea expert, described this development as an “immediate concern” because one of the “major constraints of North Korea's ability to engage in nuclear warfare is the number of launchers they have.”
Kim also drew attention to the modernization of North Korea’s military and said the country would continue to strengthen its “war deterrent” or to “contain and control” the threats posed by hostile forces, including the “aggravating nuclear threat.”
He said the country’s military capabilities are changing “in its quality and quantity…in accordance with our demands and our timetable.”
Kim may have been referring in part to the new short-range ballistic missiles that North Korea has introduced and tested since negotiations with the United States broke down in mid-2019. North Korea displayed those missiles in large quantities at the parade.
Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo told reporters that the solid-fueled, short-range missiles pose “the most serious threat our security.” He said North Korea is focused on developing capabilities to attack South Korea while Seoul is “absorbed in a peace campaign.”
Solid-fueled ballistic missiles pose a greater threat than liquid-fueled systems, which must be fueled on site prior to launch, which increases the likelihood of early detection.
North Korea also displayed a new variant of its solid-fueled medium-range Pukguksong missile during the parade. North Korea has tested land-based and sea-based variants of the Pukguksong in the past.
The new system, dubbed the Pukguksong-4, is likely intended for deployment on a submarine Pyongyang is building and may have a longer range than the 1,900-kilometer Pukguksong-3 that North Korea tested in 2019.