Kim Jong-un exceeded expectations with a new look. A parade to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the ruling party on Oct. 10 was expected but hosting it at night was a surprise. The parade featured a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) among other new weapons technologies. Even if the displayed missile was a mockup, its transporter, an eleven-axle monster, was real. Analysts around the world who know how to look at these things will comb the images for fine details to discover potential capabilities. One early conclusion might be that North Korea’s nuclear, missile, and other weapons development programs continue their robust progress, despite international sanctions and a reputed tacit agreement with the United States. And why not? The missiles and nuclear weapons provide security for North Korea, and they undergird its vigorous global black-market arms trade.
Kim’s speech marking the celebration was reportedly unique for its brevity and an apology for the hardships his subjects endure. Kim even exhibited emotion when thanking North Korea’s soldiers for their efforts in response to corona-virus pressure on trade, extreme flooding, and the effects of continuing U.S. and UN sanctions. Kim is not known for his compassion, so this counts as another surprise.
Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted that the missile and transporter appeared to be “the largest road-mobile liquid propellent ICBM anywhere.” Panda’s conclusion is that “North Korea, despite all attempts to stymie its progress, continues to make significant advancements in its conventional and nuclear forces.”
It is interesting that Kim chose a parade display instead of a long-range test. No one has seen the country conduct a long-range test since 2017, but many short-range missile tests have been made, including during 2020. President Donald Trump’s 2018 declaration that he ended North Korea’s nuclear threat to the United States apparently still holds, but only in the sense that such a test has not been demonstrated. With weapons like this, one might hope that the world never does see one. But the intelligence indicators are flashing red.
In 2019, Trump remarked that he was not bothered by short-range missiles fired toward Japan by North Korea. That may account for the continued tests of short-range ballistic missiles that the country launched throughout 2019 and 2020 while it avoided long-range tests. Japan’s opinion of short-range tests is likely quite different than ours. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, obviously under the short-range missile threat, has a fractious constituency to manage. Advocacy to align with China and tensions over our alliance grow. U.S.-Republic of Korea cost-sharing talks deadlocked in 2019 over U.S. demands for a four-fold increase. Operational control decisions await action. North Korea’s martial display, especially of a missile that can range the United States, will not make U.S.-Korea alliance relations any easier.
How Did We Get Here?
North Korea’s nuclear program, in the shadows since perhaps the 1960s, emerged into the public spotlight in the early 1990s. De-fueling operations at the Yongbyon nuclear power site became public. Secretary of Defense William Perry declared that the United States would not permit the development of a North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal. He said that the conflict was not imminent, but he also ordered military preparations for an imminent conflict. As tensions rose over getting international inspectors into the facility to monitor the removal of spent fuel rods, former President Jimmy Carter suddenly surfaced in North Korea. His efforts became the negotiated terms for the first dialogue with North Korea since the armistice in 1953.
As things turned out, this set both our policy—North Korea will not become a nuclear weapons state—and our curious mix of official and unofficial efforts to realize this policy. We experienced four-party and six-party talks, negotiations, agreements, cheating on the agreements, military threats, and finally sanctions. Every U.S. administration from the Clinton administration forward followed the same policy, with varying mixes of carrots and sticks. Recently, the Trump administration tried personal leader diplomacy. The parade’s display raises familiar questions about that effort. Meanwhile, North Korea’s weapons development and weapons business continue. Sisyphus would recognize the pattern.
After the experience of four administrations, two from each major party, perhaps it is time to challenge the implicit and explicit assumptions governing our efforts. It is an objective fact that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state, which Professor Robert E. Kelly of Pusan National University in Korea has rightfully noted. Our continued pursuit of an objectively failed policy is worse than ineffective. It damages our prestige. It is counterproductive, even dangerous, taking attention, time, and effort away from efforts and actions to bolster the security and the deterrent power of our allies and friends. For one example: enhanced surveillance and the right weapons can make early-ascent and even boost-phase intercept of missiles over North Korea operational. That is an effective riposte to North Korea: deterrence by denial. The technologies and operational concepts to enforce deterrence by denial would be applicable to the security of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other friends.
A new administration may wish to take a new look. Accepting the objective fact of North Korea’s weapons capability does not mean we must accept it as legitimate. It does mean that the United States must take measures to better ensure the security of its allies and friends, as well as its own security. It does not mean an end to dialogue with North Korea. Dialogue can continue if we feel it gives us better insight into their intentions. It may also mean that U.S. officials may apply more pressure than it has in the past on issues like illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by North Korean vessels, North Korean human rights violations, illegal North Korean businesses across the globe, counterfeiting of U.S. currency (their $100 bills forced the United States to considerable expense to counter), narcotics production and distribution, international banking that supports the leadership’s lifestyle, and other things. This will require a major improvement and expansion of our diplomatic efforts elsewhere to rebuild trust and cooperation that has eroded. And trust will be essential. North Korea has coercive and retaliatory options, such as a VX attack in Malaysia, a weapons demonstration for ASEAN that was used to murder Kim’s half-brother.
North Korea and its weapons are not the most important thing. The safety and security of our allies and friends, our conventional and extended deterrence, and revitalizing our relations with countries around the world are the most important.
Wallace C. Gregson, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009–11), is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest.
Image: Soldiers attend a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in this image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on October 10, 2020.