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North Korea nuclear crisis

Opinion: North Korea’s huge military parade shows it’s prepared to wage nuclear war

Massive show of armaments was Pyongyang’s way of advertising its burgeoning plan to fight, writes Ankit Panda

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 4:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 4:01am

North Korea celebrated the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding father Kim Il-sung on April 15. To commemorate the occasion, it held a huge military parade in Pyongyang.

Knowing that the event would be closely watched the world over and certainly by the United States, South Korea and Japan – its adversaries in the region – Pyongyang put on quite a show.

For close observers of the country’s nuclear programme, North Korea took no chances at the parade. It laid bare its nuclear weapons strategy in a display that should have put to rest any sweet tempered and optimistic ideas that it is nothing more than a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the West and South Korea.

The conclusion of the parade, when North Korea usually shows off its heavy armour, artillery and ballistic missile systems and launchers, was especially expressive this year.

Among the new systems and configurations on display, we saw new launchers for Pyongyang’s previously ship-based Kumsong-3 anti-ship cruise missile.

North Korea used made-in-China trucks to show off missiles

Also, for the first time in a parade setting, we saw the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile, the cornerstone of North Korea’s sea-based second strike capability.

North Korea also paraded an as-yet-unknown missile with a manoeuvrable warhead that is probably its first foray into a serious long-range anti-ship ballistic missile. Pyongyang tested the missile, which the United States has dubbed the KN-17, the day after the parade near its submarine base at Sinpo.

The crescendo of the parade came when Pyongyang not only showed off its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, its so-called “Guam-killer”, plus a new variant of its KN-08 intercontinental-range ballistic missile, but also paraded two brand new, similar-sized canisters that resembled, at least on the outside, older Chinese and Soviet systems.

It is easy to get lost in the details of the technology, but policymakers and the public in the United States, South Korea and Japan should realise that the parade was North Korea’s way of advertising its burgeoning plan to fight – and win – a nuclear war.

The North Korean regime, facing a permanent sense of insecurity and fearing a surprise US-South Korea “decapitation” attack, is under immense pressure to strike first in a conflict.

For now, it appears that Pyongyang is looking to use its short- and medium-range missile systems if it sees any credible military mobilisation against it on the part of the United States and its allies. North Korea would presumably look to attack US military facilities in South Korea and Japan in a first nuclear strike.

In fact, Pyongyang has been increasingly vocal on this point. “If we notice any sign of assault on our sovereignty, our army will launch merciless military strikes against the US aggressors, wherever they may exist, from the remote US lands to the American military bases on the Korean peninsula, such as those of Japan and elsewhere,” Sin Hong-chol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, told the press, outlining North Korea’s first strike plans.

North Korea’s still untested intercontinental-range systems are to deter escalation by the United States after a first strike by holding the US homeland at risk. That, in a nutshell, is the message North Korea sought to make clear at the parade.

Even if some of the missiles and systems we saw displayed were detailed mock-ups or simply empty air frames, the broader point stands that Pyongyang sought to signal its long-term intent for its nuclear programme. This is more than a bargaining chip.

North Korea shows off advanced weapons during founder’s birthday parade

US President Donald Trump said he needed a 10-minute conversation with his Chinese counterpart to Xi Jinping learn that dealing with North Korea would be “not so easy,” but even if he had not had the pleasure of Xi’s company, April’s parade should have made that clear.

None of the above is to suggest that conflict with North Korea is either inevitable or unavoidable. It’s not and Pyongyang’s actions speak to its intent to deter what it sees as inevitable aggression by the United States and South Korea.

But, in the meantime, despite the new US administration’s proclamations that a “new approach” will be taken towards North Korea, leaving behind the Obama-era policy of strategic patience, there is little reason to suspect that Washington is interested in an approach that would acknowledge these increasingly clear realities about the state of Pyongyang’s capabilities.

Ankit Panda is a senior editor at The Diplomat where he writes on international security, diplomacy and economics in the Asia-Pacific region