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Wearing a giant furry hat, black leather jacket and a beaming smile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un introduced “the world’s strongest weapon” – a new submarine-launched ballistic missile – at a nighttime parade on Thursday in Pyongyang.
The display of North Korea’s military might followed a rare congress of the ruling Workers' Party, during which leader Kim denounced the United States as his country's “foremost principal enemy” and vowed to strengthen the North’s nuclear war deterrent.
On Friday, the reclusive regime’s state media released 100 photos of a mass celebration of the national armory, including tanks and rocket launchers, all flanked by rows of marching soldiers, noticeably not wearing masks. Military aircraft were illuminated by LED lights as they flew overhead in formation.
“They’d like us to notice that they’re getting more proficient with larger solid rocket boosters,” tweeted Ankit Panda, a North Korea expert and author of ‘Kim Jong Un and the Bomb’, as the parade unfolded in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square.
As the spectacle reached its climax, the military rolled out what analysts said appeared to be new variants of solid-fuel short-range ballistic missiles – which are more quickly deployed than liquid-fuelled versions - and four Pukguksong-class submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missiles, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” state news agency KCNA reported.
North Korea has already test-fired several SLBMs from underwater, and analysts say it is seeking to develop an operational submarine to carry the missiles.
State media revealed the new SLBM was labelled Pukguksong-5, a longer version and potentially an upgrade over the Pukguksong-4 that was unveiled at a larger military parade in October.
The new SLBM emphasised “continued progress in development of better solid propellant missiles," Mr Panda told NK News in an interview.
“The SLBM is larger and improved than the one displayed in the Workers’ Party Parade in October last year. It looks like North Korea is really bolstering its submarine missile-launching capabilities,” Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics and North Korea expert at the University of Oxford, told The Telegraph.
Kim oversaw the procession, waving to enthusiastic crowds. The hawkish display came just days after his powerful sister lashed out at South Korea’s military chiefs as “top-class idiots” and said their close tracking of the North’s parades proved Seoul’s “hostile approach” towards its neighbour.
The performance, and Kim’s bellicose statements over the past week, offer a preview of the challenges ahead for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden as it seeks to find a path through the current impasse in nuclear disarmament talks with Pyongyang.
Kim initially had a fiery relationship with Donald Trump, the outgoing US president, before a diplomatic détente heralded a series of unprecedented face-to-face summits. Their subsequently warm relationship did little to prevent the North Korean leader bolstering his nuclear and missile capabilities.
“Despite the economic constraints imposed by sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea is making a clear statement to the US: it will keep going down the nuclear route even as the US transitions to the Biden administration,” said Mr Howell.
“With each successive US President, the list of policy options towards North Korea shrinks,” he added.
“If Biden does not engage at all, Pyongyang will not show any willingness to make any concessions. Kim Jong Un has repeatedly asserted how he is prepared to “live with” sanctions imposition after all,” he said.
“Yet, given Biden’s focus on human rights, too, he may have to make an unpalatable decision and start talking with the DPRK to avoid already stagnant US-DPRK relations stalling further.”
Unlike the October parade, Thursday’s event did not showcase North Korea’s largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are believed to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States.
The piece de resistance of the autumn event was the North’s largest ever ICBM, presented on a transporter vehicle with at least 22 wheels.
Professor Vipin Narang, a nuclear policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stressed the importance of this omission, adding that the parade was largely for domestic consumption and not intended to rock the boat with the US for now.
“If Kim really wanted to send a message to the incoming Biden Administration, he could have paraded the new heavy ICBM or, worse, tested it,” he said.
“The fact that he didn’t suggests he is willing to lay low and let the Biden Administration, at least right now, figure out what it wants to do on North Korea and go from there.”
He added: “His speech on North Korean nuclear developments over the past several years, and more concerningly, where they may be headed—a de facto North Korean Nuclear Posture Review—said everything that needed to be said: I’m a nuclear weapons power and I have no intention of giving them up.”