For What Reason Is North Korea Displaying Its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles?
The Obvious Causes
What is the purpose of North Korea’s ICBM parade? Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, may have several motives for doing this. Simply put, Kim is a failing leader of North Korea who is unable to provide enough food, energy, or consumer goods for his people and who is completely brutal in his attempts to control the elites. Therefore, he may feel compelled to show that he is still an effective leader, and he may conclude that nuclear weapons, especially those delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles, do just that. As reported by state media in North Korea, the parade “showed the country’s greatest nuclear strike capability.”
Kim seems to place a high value on the external media attention that the ICBM parades attract for his own purposes, but it also serves to show his people that he is a major player on the international stage. U.S. President Joe Biden neglected to mention North Korea in his 2023 State of the Union address because of the country’s preoccupation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat posed by China. Kim Jong Un may have wanted to get back in the spotlight, so he paraded ICBMs through Pyongyang.
U.S. “Aggression” Is Being Stifled by North Korea.
Kim’s intercontinental ballistic missiles may have been stationed there as a deterrent. Kim has long maintained that he is developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems to prevent an American or South Korean attack on North Korea. Kim apparently wants ICBMs to apply a direct deterrent threat against the United States, perhaps using a variant of the assured destruction concept that the United States used to deter attacks by the Soviet Union during the Cold War—a threat to target the population and industry, expecting that such costs would deter U.S. action.
The North Korean Hwasong-17s in the parade could potentially carry three or more nuclear warheads, with each nuclear warhead having at least as much explosive power (yield) as the nuclear weapon North Korea demonstrated in its sixth nuclear test (about 230 kilotons). North Korea has already threatened a seventh nuclear test, and possibly more in the future to test the effectiveness of even more powerful nuclear warheads.
Approximately three million people in New York City or Seoul could be killed or seriously injured by a nuclear weapon of this yield, as calculated by the Nukemap online nuclear weapon effects calculation system. About one million people in less densely populated areas of the United States or Korea would be killed or severely injured by this yield weapon. It’s safe to assume that any U.S. president would be dissuaded from launching an ad hoc attack on North Korea if even a single nuclear warhead with that much yield was capable of detonating over a major city in the United States.
North Korea probably needs a force of five or so ICBMs (carrying 15 or more nuclear warheads) to have high confidence in being able to deliver at least one of the warheads to a U.S. city and thus be able to deter U.S. aggression, given that not all North Korean ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons will work and that the United States has missile defences for both the U.S. homeland and Korea. However, Kim has just shown off far more than that number, suggesting he plans to use his nuclear ICBM force for offensive as well as defensive purposes.
Kim has also recently declared his intention to construct 30 KN-25 missile launchers, each of which will be capable of firing 6 missiles armed with a tactical nuclear warhead. This will give North Korea 180 such warheads. Since its range is less than 400 kilometres, the KN-25 can only be used against targets in South Korea or parts of China. Assuring South Korea would be completely annihilated with a nuclear arsenal of around 180 warheads would be insane. In October 2022, Kim ordered his military to fire off 23 ballistic missiles in a single day, and the North Korean government later claimed these were rehearsals for the actual launch of nuclear weapons aimed at destroying South Korean airfields, ports, and military command and control.
Kim Wants to Nullify South Korea’s U.S. Nuclear Guarantee
Kim may be developing a nuclear force for both coercive and compellent purposes, given the combined overkill being developed by North Korea to challenge both South Korea and the United States. More specifically, as ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol has recently pointed out, Kim seems eager to exploit an example from the Soviet Cold War playbook.
In the late 1950s onward, the Soviet Union began threatening the United States with nuclear bombers and then intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States made a similar “nuclear umbrella” extended deterrence commitment to its NATO allies as it has made to South Korea now. However, French President Charles de Gaulle claimed that the U.S. was not willing to trade New York City for Paris, so the country did not believe the U.S. nuclear umbrella to be credible. France needed its own nuclear deterrent force to ensure the country’s safety. France has largely severed ties with NATO.
By threatening to use nuclear weapons against the United States if the United States uses nuclear weapons to support South Korea, Kim may also be hoping to break the South Korea-U.S. alliance. In order to guarantee Seoul’s safety, would the United States be willing to give up New York or Los Angeles? Even among South Koreans, there appears to be a growing scepticism.
Were the North’s ‘ICBMs’ really just a show?
A land of lies, North Korea presents itself as if it were a developed nation when, in reality, it is a third-rate pretender. Kim Il-sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was also known for engaging in massive deceptions, such as constructing the “Potemkin village” of Kijong-dong in the Korean Demilitarized Zone to entice South Korean defectors.
So, it is reasonable to wonder if the ICBMs North Korea displayed were legit, capable of actually threatening the United States. We can’t be sure, but we do know that Russia has long paraded dummy missiles to scare the West and give the impression of strength, all while protecting its real missiles from potential harm. The ICBMs that North Korea displayed in 2012 were the first to use this method. “North Korea is notorious for parading missile mockups, and until flight testing can be observed, very little can be determined.”
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Even if a missile is successfully flight tested, it will only show that North Korea is capable of producing missiles of that type. There is no doubt that Kim wants to show more Hwasong-17 missiles to increase its deterrence and coercion, but it is possible that some or all of the 11 displayed were dummy versions.
When considering the five missile containers, it is important to recall that Kim also displayed two potential ICBM canisters at his military parade in 2017. Since actual solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles have their fuel already installed, it’s unlikely that the canisters shown this time contained any such weapons. However, even though this fuel is much less likely to cause an explosion than liquid fuels, it still could have wiped out him and much of his leadership had it been detonated during the parade.
Of course, Kim seems determined to construct these ICBMs, but despite the appearances in this parade, the United States may still have time to do something to rein in Kim’s developing strategic nuclear threat.
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