The Kim Jong-un regime is preparing to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party with a major military parade, where North Korea is poised to unveil several of its latest missile systems.
On October 10th, thousands of troops and masses of vehicle columns will line the streets of Pyongyang with all of the pomp and tightly rehearsed choreography befitting a major North Korean holiday. The last North Korean military parade was held in September 2018, following the Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim earlier that summer. In keeping with the spirit of then-ongoing denuclearization talks, North Korea opted not to display either of its new strategic weapons or its older stock of nuclear weapons delivery systems, at that celebration.
But a constellation of recent military and technical circumstances suggests that Pyongyang aims to use the 2020 parade as a high-profile venue to flaunt a slew of nuclear-capable missile systems. Late last month, reports emerged of a spike in activity at North Korea’s Sinpo Shipyard. The Sinpo Shipyard is the primary construction site for North Korea’s upcoming Sinpo-C ballistic missile submarine, the presumed successor to North Korea’s Soviet-derived Sinpo-B submarine line. North Korea has likewise made strides in developing and testing a nuclear-capable submarine-launched missile (SLBM) that can be deployed outside of Washington’s land-based THAAD network of missile defenses in East Asia, potentially posing an existential threat to critical South Korean infrastructure. Given the recent strides made in both of these projects, there is good reason to expect a Pukguksong-3 SLBM launch during the upcoming parade. This was already done last year, but likely from a submersible barge—demonstrating a Pukguksong-3 launch from a fully operational submarine, perhaps even a Sinpo-C prototype, would be a compelling testament to North Korean naval modernization.
The 75th-anniversary celebration could also become a showcase for North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. Late last year, Kim announced at a Workers’ Party meeting that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by North Korea in the near future.” This could mean several different things in the context of the upcoming parade. South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing South Korea officials, posits that North Korea could be preparing to unveil a new long-range ballistic missile. This may be the solid fuel, nuclear-capable ICBM that a growing number of Korea experts believe is currently being developed by Pyongyang.
Another, somewhat more tame possibility is a parade demonstration of North Korea’s reported capacity to indigenously produce transporter erector launchers (TEL’s) for ICBM’s, which previously had to be imported and converted. A vehicle strongly resembling a TEL was recently spotted at the Mirim Parade Training Ground in the vicinity of Pyongyang, suggesting that TEL’s will take part in the parade. A larger supply of functioning TEL’s allows North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to be more widely deployed, enhancing both its first and second-strike capabilities.
For North Korea’s leadership, the 75th-anniversary parade raises issues of political timing. On the one hand, Pyongyang has recurrently threatened to destabilize U.S. politics ahead of the upcoming presidential election; to this end, a North Korean ICBM demonstration could burden the embattled Trump administration with a fresh foreign policy controversy a mere three weeks from election night. On the other hand, North Korea tends to save its major military provocations until shortly after new U.S. presidents are sworn in. If Pyongyang plays its nuclear hand now and Donald Trump goes on to lose the election, North Korea risks diluting what could later be a source of diplomatic leverage against a prospective Joe Biden administration.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and a PhD student in History at American University.