North Korea’s rollout last week of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of targeting the U.S. with a nuclear warhead showed that Pyongyang continues to expand its illegal weapons arsenal despite increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure from the Trump administration.
The communist regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unveiled the road-mobile ICBM during a massive military parade in Pyongyang that U.S. experts said was clearly designed to send a message to Washington and its allies in the region, including South Korea.
“This parade was orchestrated to show that despite the sanctions and hardships, [North Korea] has continued to advance its capabilities across the spectrum, from nuclear weapons and missiles to conventional systems to individual soldier equipment,” said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel focused on North Korea.
“Most important, it laid the foundation for continued blackmail diplomacy with the South and the U.S.,” said Mr. Maxwell, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
He circulated his comments via email as U.S. officials scrambled to gauge the technical implications of what they had seen over the weekend on North Korean state-controlled TV broadcasts.
The ICBM that rolled through a parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Kim regime’s ruling Workers’ Party appeared to be a significantly ramped-up version of the Hwasong-15 missile that Pyongyang test-launched in 2017.
The ICBM, which had not been shown before in public, was rolled onto a transporter-erector launcher with 11 axles, two more than the Hwasong-15 — also known as the KN-22. It marks the fourth ballistic missile that the North Koreans have developed in a class that also includes the Taepodong, KN-20 and KN-22.
The parade in Pyongyang also showcased the KN-20 and a submarine-launched ballistic missile called the KN-11. The larger, newer ICBM is expected to have a longer range than the others, with a potential capability of flying some 7,000 miles — notably farther than the distance from Pyongyang to Washington.
National security sources have predicted for months that North Korea might use the Workers’ Party anniversary parade for a missile reveal, delivering an “October surprise” to capitalize on perceived policy uncertainty in Washington surrounding the impending U.S. presidential election.
A senior Trump administration official expressed frustration over the reveal.
“It is disappointing to see the DPRK continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program over working towards a brighter future for the North Korean people,” the official told Reuters, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The development appears to fly in the face of the Trump administration’s pursuit of a major denuclearization deal with the Kim regime. Talks toward such a deal have been stalled since the breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between President Trump and Mr. Kim.
Mr. Trump said he walked away from the summit early because Mr. Kim demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of his nuclear arsenal.
The period since has been marked by on-again, off-again provocations from Pyongyang, including months of short-range missile launch tests that the Trump administration has largely ignored.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed out that, despite the tests, the Kim regime has thus far held to a promise he said Mr. Kim made at the first summit between the two men in June 2018 in Singapore: not to carry out any more ICBM or nuclear launches. This weekend’s action was considered a parade rollout, not a test launch.
While the Trump administration remains eager to resume dialogue with the North Koreans, it has gradually increased sanctions on the Kim regime. U.S. officials have vowed to maintain a “maximum pressure” campaign until Pyongyang denuclearizes.
But Washington has struggled to get a full buy-in for the sanctions from China, which shares a border with North Korea and is Pyongyang’s main strategic and economic backer. Hawkish foreign policy advisers in Washington have called on the Trump administration to level sanctions directly against Chinese banks doing business with the Kim regime.
The regime, meanwhile, has shown an ongoing ability to produce nuclear bombs and increasingly sophisticated missiles, exposing the limitations of U.S. and international sanctions.
North Korea has been under United Nations-backed sanctions and a nuclear embargo for more than two decades and has repeatedly violated past diplomatic nuclear agreements with the wider international community.
A U.N. panel of experts reported several years ago that North Korea’s mobile missiles were built on transporter-erector launchers converted from Chinese lumber-carrying vehicles exported in the early 2000s.
The display of missile force over the weekend was the first since 2018, when the Trump administration began its push for diplomacy with the Kim regime.
“We will continue to strengthen war deterrence for self-defense to deter, control and manage all dangerous attempts and threatening acts, including ever-growing nuclear threats, from hostile forces,” said the North Korean leader, who was dressed in a light-gray suit, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
North Korea uses the term “war deterrence” in referring to nuclear arms.
Mr. Kim also said North Korean military power would not be used preemptively. “But,” he said, “should anyone undermine our national security and mobilize military power against us, I will retaliate by using the most powerful offensive force at our disposal and in a preemptive manner.”
North Korean long-range missile development in recent years has forced the Pentagon to reevaluate its strategic missile defenses.
“I believe we have the capability today to deter North Korean aggression, but given where we think the North Korean capability might be in terms of their missiles in the next five years, I think we must continue to explore, improve and resource our entire missile defense capabilities,” Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the military’s Indo-Pacific Command, said in 2018.
Upgraded defenses include Theater High-Altitude Area Defenses (THAAD) in Guam and South Korea, missile defense ships in the Pacific and near Japan.
“I support planned improvements to the [ballistic missile defense] of the homeland architecture via the new Homeland Defense Radar for Hawaii, additional purchase of Ground Based Interceptors, and a detailed study that ascertains the efficacy of positioning interceptors in Hawaii,” Adm. Davidson said.
The admiral also said he wanted to see improvements in the capabilities and numbers of ballistic and cruise missile interceptors that he said would “further enhance homeland defense capabilities and protect key regional nodes from North Korea’s aggressive action against the United States.”
Richard Fisher, a military affairs specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the new North Korean ICBM unveiled over the weekend appears to have the same diameter as the previously revealed KN-22, “but is longer, to accommodate a new warhead bus and possible third stage.”
“The warhead bus is large enough to carry multiple warheads, but how many would depend on their size, something not clear from North Korean sources,” Mr. Fisher said.
The new 22-wheeled ICBM vehicle, a transportor erector launcher (TEL), appears to be a variant of the 16-wheel transporters that China sold to North Korea in 2010.
“With 22 wheels, this new ICBM has the largest mobile TEL in the world, exceeding the previous record of the HS-15’s 18-wheel TEL,” Mr. Fisher said.
“It is either made in China or assembled in North Korea with substantial Sanjiang Space Group/China Science and Industry Corp. assistance,” he said. “It is safe to conclude this is yet another massive Chinese violation of the North Korea sanctions regime.”
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