January 15 (Al Jazeera) – North Korea displayed what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at a parade on Thursday night, state media reported, marking the end of a political congress at which leader Kim Jong Un admitted severe failings but pledged to boost the country’s military might.
Clad in a black leather coat, gloves and fur hat, Kim smiled and waved as he watched the parade in a flood-lit Kim Il Sung Square.
“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.
Photos released by state media showed the SLBM was labelled Pukguksong-5, potentially marking an upgrade over the Pukguksong-4 that was unveiled at a larger military parade in October.
“The new missile definitely looks longer,” Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), said on Twitter.
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the parade also showcased “a new previously unseen short-range ballistic missile”.
Rockets with a “powerful striking capability for thoroughly annihilating enemies in a pre-emptive way outside the territory”, according to KCNA, were also on display.
The phrasing suggests the weapons have a range that extends beyond the Korean peninsula and could at least reach Japan.
Unlike October, Thursday’s parade 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 parade in itself was not intended to be a provocation but was a worrying sign of Pyongyang’s priorities, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The economy is severely strained from pandemic border closures, policy mismanagement and international sanctions,” he said. “Despite or perhaps because of this, Kim Jong Un feels the need to devote scarce resources to another political-military display.”
‘Invincible iron-clad ranks’
At the opening of the congress – the first since 2016 – Kim had described the past five years as the “worst of the worst” for the country acknowledging that the government’s economic plans had fallen short in almost every respect.
But he was also keen to stress the North’s growing military prowess and described the United States, which has troops in South Korea and Japan, as the country’s “biggest enemy“.
Analysts say the North wants to send a message of strength ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the next US president on January 20.
Kim had a tumultuous relationship with outgoing president Donald Trump – from mutual insults and threats of war to face-to-face summits – but there was little substantive progress and the denuclearisation talks have been stalled since the collapse of their February 2019 summit in Hanoi.
The North is under multiple sets of international sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes and Biden, who was vice president during the Obama administration, is expected to follow a more orthodox approach to diplomacy.
Thursday’s display also included infantry troops, artillery, tanks, and an aerial display during which aircraft formed the number “8” to commemorate the congress, KCNA said.
“The majestic elite units and invincible iron-clad ranks of the Republic which will proudly pass Kim Il Sung Square represent our absolute power,” North Korean defence minister Kim Jong Gwan said in a speech ahead of the Thursday evening parade, the state news agency reported.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) simply said it was analysing the weaponry displayed during the parade, Yonhap news agency reported.