SEOUL — North Korea rolled 11 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, through the heart of Pyongyang in a parade that started late Wednesday night and ended on Thursday morning — more than have ever been publicly displayed by the regime of Kim Jong-un in one space before.
A black fedora-clad Mr. Kim brought his high-profile daughter Kim Ju-ae to observe the spectacle, held to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s army. It came after weeks of belligerent rhetoric from the North Korean leader, his efforts to elevate his country’s nuclear program, and rising tensions with the Biden administration and its allies in the region.
For U.S. defense planners, the midnight spectacle was the nightmare scenario: North Korea now appears to possess a force large enough to overcome America’s existing missile defenses and may be on the verge of deploying its first solid-fuel, long-range nuclear missile.
Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a briefing that the South Korean and U.S. military officials were closely analyzing the North Korean photos and reports to evaluate any advances in the North’s capabilities.
Facing international isolation and a long-running economic crisis, North Korea‘s conventional armed forces eroded under the rule of Mr. Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, but its nuclear and ICBM capabilities have soared.
The country has test-detonated six nuclear devices since 2006, and in 2022, conducted an unprecedented number of ballistic and cruise missile tests of multiple classes while stiff-arming U.S. efforts to resume diplomatic contacts. But the North has gone quiet for unknown reasons in recent days — only one test has been conducted in 2023.
The relative quiet made the display of weaponry through Pyongyang’s floodlit streets all the more striking, analysts said.
“This is cumulatively more ICBM launchers than we’ve ever seen before at a North Korean parade,” Ankit Panda of the United States-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter. That represents a force able to “overwhelm [the] U.S. defense system against them.”
In 2021, Mr. Panda testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that “North Korea could saturate the existing [U.S. ground-based defense] system in its ideal mode with just 11 re-entry vehicles.”
Other experts concur. According to a 2022 report by the Belfer Institute, “Despite two decades of dedicated and costly efforts, the [U.S. missile defense system] remains unproven and unreliable in deterring North Korea’s threat to use intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
The 11 Hwasong-17 ICBMs, borne in the parade on huge transporter erector launchers, or TELs, are a dual-stage missile class first tested in 2022. The predecessor Hwasong-15 had achieved the range to hit the U.S. mainland, and experts speculate that the new Hwasong-17 has the ability to carry multiple warheads, further straining the demands on U.S. missile defense systems.
Televised images of the parade showed thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marching through the heart of the North Korean capital, chanting “Defend with your life, Paektu Bloodline,” referring to the Kim family’s lineage named after a volcano that North Koreans consider sacred.
A ceremonial cavalry unit trotted through the square riding white horses. The North Korean official state broadcast described one of the animals as “most beloved” by Mr. Kim’s daughter, The Associated Press reported.
Even more formidable arms are said to be in the pipeline. In addition to the liquid-fuel Hwasong-17s, five apparent mock-ups of solid-fuel ICBMs, encased in canisters and carried on nine-axle vehicles, were also displayed in the parade. Analysts say the use of canisters strongly implied a solid-fuel missile.
Liquid-fuel missiles must be positioned for launch while their tanks are filled, making them vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. Solid-fuel ICBMs have no such window of vulnerability, though it is unclear how advanced Pyongyang’s technologies are. It last tested a motor in December.
Equally unclear is how North Korea — the most decrepit economy in Northeast Asia — is funding these super-weapons.
While it is no secret that Pyongyang’s civilian economy has been sacrificed for the military research progams, a conference this week in South Korea found that North’s cyber-hacking, ransomware activities and cryptocurrency thefts have also contributed greatly. Experts at the conference estimated that North Korea’s clandestine cyber sector earned between $1.7 billion and $2 billion last year — far more than the estimated $500 million cost for all of the 2022 weapons tests.
“North Korea has dramatically ramped up cyber capabilities and has been using it to create loopholes in sanctions and generate huge amounts of revenue – most of it for missile and nuclear development,” Chai Kyung-hoon, director of the North Korean Nuclear Policy Division of Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the seminar.
One conference participant, speaking off-record, said the North’s clandestine programs are based not only in China and North Korea, but are also active in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The massive weapons Pyongyang displayed in the parade demonstrate both the ineffectiveness of the international sanctions — and the effectiveness of the North’s online operatives.
“These threats are evolving,” Mr. Chai warned. “North Korea is coming up with creative and very sophisticated methods to steal money and enlist enablers all around the world.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.