With the world watching, North Korea’s 65th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party was the perfect opportunity for the country to display its military capabilities and newly developed weapons systems. Thus on Sunday, Kim Jong Un, the DPRK’s newest four-star general, was presented with a highly orchestrated and lengthy performance of pomp and North Korean military splendor. Aside from his presence, it was also interesting to note three new missiles systems being displayed at the parade, suggesting North Korea’s missile research and design teams have been both working hard to both refine and diversify current options.
First of the missile systems on parade wasthe Musudan Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM); the second, a suspected variant of the Rodong / NoDong (an extended range, multi-engine SCUD); and the third, a suspected new range of surface-to-air missiles.
Range: 2,500 – 4,000km (1,550 – 2,500 miles)
Guiding System: Inertial Navigating System
The Musudan IRBM is thought to be a modified version of the Soviet R-27 submarine launched ballistic missile. The R-27 had a range of 2,500 -3,000km (1,550 to 1,870 miles). However, the Musudan (12m) is bigger in length. by nearly 3m than the R-27 (9.65m).
The missile got its name from the West, a result of the testing facility where it was believed to be assembled, Musudan-ri. As far as most analysts know, the missile has not been tested. That said, its suspected Soviet design heritage could mean that North Korea acquired test data from the scientists that helped produce them – and its important to remember the DPRK has a history of not conducting many tests before fielding missiles (such as the No-Dong).
What does this missile mean in terms of what it offers the DPRK, and what are the implications for the rest of the world? Well, in terms of range, as you can see here from a map of the supposed range of the unsuccessfully tested Taepodong-2 missile (2006), the Musudan missile is capable of hitting Guam and Hawaii, significant due to the US military bases located there. This North Korean missile, for the first time, would be able to reach United States territory. Is this thus a sign of intent from Pyongyang, or just mere posturing?
North Korea now has another missile added to their arsenal that can reach sensitive targets in Japan and South Korea. Pyongyang could potentially be trying to force the hand of the United States into coming back to the diplomatic table. Its economic and military fragility mean that the last thing it needs is an all out war, so this unveiling of new missiles could merely be an attempt to raise the stakes and build more leverage. The parade could also have financial ramifications, with Pyongyang using their arms display as a ‘shop window’ to potential arms suitors, namely Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Libya. However, with a ban imposed on the DPRK of all exports of military arms, any sale could prove difficult due to the tightening of sanctions and mechanisms such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Its also possible that the parade could be evidence that North Korea now has access to increasingly accurate missile systems and advanced military technology, beyond what it was once thought to possess.
Rodong / Dondong Variant
Range: 1,100–1,600km (684 – 1,000 miles)
Diameter: 1.32 – 1.35m
Guiding System: Inertial Navigating System
The second suspected new missile is a variant of the Rodong/Nodong. Without having more concrete information, it is difficult to gauge the specifications of such a missile. But we do know that North Korea already has some 600 No-dong type missiles fielded, all of which can target Japan and South Korea. In May 1990 US intelligence claimed a Nodong had been seen on the launch pad at the Musudan-ri testing facility – the first sighting of this missile type. Further images from US reconnaissance satellites revealed burn marks on the launch pad, which indicated a possible launch failure. Despite this reported test failure, the DPRK was still able to secure sales contracts with Iran, Libya, and possibly Pakistan and Syria. These all secured before a further round of NoDong flight-testing in 1993 – a round of tests notable for being restricted in range, potentially due to geographic reasons. Thus with only one set of restricted tests, the Rodong/Nodong missile is most certainly unreliable . Consequently, the presence of these Rodong/Nodong variants at the parade could suggest that North Korea is developing a refined version of this missile to overcome reliability problems associated with the original fleet of Rodong/Nodongs, using test information from Iranian Shahab launches to overcome technical challenges without needing to test themselves.
SURFACE TO AIR SYSTEM
The third suspected missile on display was a surface-to air-missile (SAM) system, with the unit presented looking similar to the Russian S-300 series. If it were an S-300 clone, it would provide the DPRK with a highly advanced surface to air defense system, that would make any South Korean or U.S aerial strike significantly harder. However, such missile technology looks beyond the capabilities of North Korea, and whether Russia would sell the technology to Pyongyang seems highly unlikely, especially after Iran’s S-300 debacle. What was displayed could of course just be a mock up, similar to the ones Iran chose to present at their military parade back in April, built primarily from welded oil drums.
So was this weapons paradejust a celebration of 65 years of party power, or wasit a message to the rest of the world? Most likely both. Naturally, the unraveling of these new weapons systems will somehow be linked to General Kim Jong Un in an attempt to build his personality cult to internal factions. But its also evident the systems on display suggest that North Korea is developing missiles capable of reassuring their defense and bolstering their attack, with the ability to further hit US targets. All of this points further to the moribund nature of the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience”, suggesting it is high time that an alternative policy is tried. With the recent changes and events that have been witnessed in Pyongyang, now seems as good a time as any to try and rekindle some form dialogue – even if initially just comprising of “talks for the sake of talks”. Waiting for North Korea to come back to the table on U.S terms (i.e taking concrete steps towards denuclearization) will give Pyongyang further time to refine its military capabilities. And given little is known about Kim Jong Un, we cannot be sure that he won’t one day choose to use these capabilities.