Did rising pressure and a new aggressiveness from the US and China have an impact on Pyongyang? North Korea held its usual military parade and issued its usual threats on the 105th anniversary of its founder’s birth, and held a massive renewal of loyalty oaths to his grandson and current hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un. However, one expected demonstration never materialized, as the Washington Post notes:
North Korea put on a huge military spectacle Saturday to celebrate its founder’s birthday, parading its series of new and technologically advanced missiles in front of Kim Jong Un, and in a defiant show of force in front of the world.
The absence of the nuclear and missile tests could spring from a belated sense that the Kim regime has pushed its luck about as far as it can go. The US has changed tactics on the Kim regime by not just talking as tough as they do but by putting massive naval resources within easy reach of their capital. China has upped the ante too, reportedly deploying 150,000 combat troops to the border and sending surprisingly unnuanced warnings in public venues such as Global Times. It seems that Pyongyang got the message; the regime even provided a public response to the increased pressure, calling the US “reckless” and Donald Trump “vicious.” The eschewing of a nuclear test and a missile launch — for now, anyway — suggests that they understood that language and decided not to press their luck any further. Next week, who knows?
That’s not to say that the Kim regime didn’t engage in all of the usual sabre-rattling, as Reuters points out in this video report. Analysts see some dangers in the arsenals on display as well, although most appear to be repackaging of previously existing missile systems:
The most worrisome displays involved the submarine-launched ballistic missiles, where North Korea has invested significant time and resources, and their progress on solid-fuel engines. The Guardian reports on the submarine missiles:
Also on show for the first time were Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 1,000km (600 miles).
Experts said the display of multiple SLBMs indicated that North Korea was closer to being able to launch submarine-based missiles, which are harder to detect. “It suggests a commitment to this programme,” said Joshua Pollack, the editor of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review. “Multiple SLBMs seems like a declaration of intent to advance the programme.”
North Korea’s submarine technology is far behind that of the US, and it’s likely that their missile platforms can be tracked more easily than ours or those of Russia. It’s still a worrisome development and more dangerous than land-based ICBMs, where our missile defense systems have more time to deal with any launches from the Korean peninsula. A workable submarine-based ballistic missile system will constitute a major escalation, and could force the US and China into some hard decisions about the destabilizing nature of the Kim regime.
As the Post also notes, the land-based missile systems on display also showed a few signs of dangerous advances:
One of the missiles looked similar to the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea had included in previous parades. This missile has a theoretical range of about 7,500 miles, which is enough to reach all of the United States from North Korea, said Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review.
It also put two ICBM canisters, which protect solid-fueled missiles from the effects of the environment, on the trucks that had carried the ICBMs previously. One may have been a KN-14, another missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, although it has a slightly shorter range. …
“They have an indigenous tank system now so they have more launchers, and they have solid fuel, which means they can launch a lot more of these things in quick succession without having to refuel,” she said.
In other words, the pressure of the past few weeks may have forced the Kim regime to dial down the provocations, but it hasn’t changed their overall direction yet. In fact, it may not have forced anything but a brief pause on the provocations either, a possibility that clearly has the Chinese government worried. An editorial today in Xinhau, the official state media of China, urges both Pyongyang and Washington to reach a “grand bargain” soon — but warns Pyongyang to “step back” from the brink now:
A grand bargain between the two sides is very much needed as the region is at a critical moment in history. The first stroke would be filling up the trust gap.
To do that, Washington is advised to suspend its military threat and reassure Pyongyang that it is willing to talk, and to prove with concrete actions that it is like what U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Russia a few days ago that America is indeed “not interested in regime change” in the DPRK.
Pyongyang should also take a step back, and halt immediately all of its nuclear activities as well as missile tests to allow room for diplomatic maneuvering.
For now, the Kim regime appears to be listening. We’ll see how long that lasts.