Written by Dave Maxwell. Edited and Published by Daniel Riggs.
fdd.org · by David Maxwell Senior Fellow · October 14, 2020
On October 10, North Korea celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea with a well-choreographed military parade. After months of speculation among the Korea watcher community, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unveiled what apparently are his new strategic weapons systems. These include possibly the largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the world and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). In addition, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) displayed a wide array of advanced conventional military equipment. The celebration provided three distinct and important messages to the Korean people in the North and to South Korea, the United States, and the international community.
Pyongyang's first message was one of deterrence. Kim said that if "any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them." While this message sounds defensive in nature, Kim was essentially threatening the North's adversaries with a possible preemptive strike. Washington cannot take this lightly, because the newly displayed ICBM could pose a direct and dangerous threat to the United States.
Such a threat is plausible if the new ICBM contains a multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) capability, which increases the chances of defeating missile defenses based in the continental United States. Furthermore, North Korea has not tested these new missiles, and they are not yet operational. This raises the question of whether they are in fact real. If they are, then these ICBMs constitute as strong a deterrence message as Kim could send to the United States, even though he never once mentioned the United States in his speech.
Kim's second message was that sanctions have failed to prevent the regime from modernizing and advancing its military capabilities. Kim likely sought to demonstrate this point to persuade the United States and South Korea to lift these measures in potential future negotiations.
The display of military strength also targeted the Korean people in the North. Specifically, the regime intended for the showcasing of military equipment and personnel to raise morale in the North amid a period of economic hardship. Kim even added a tearful apology for the plight of his people, which garnered much attention from the press.
Yet, like his response to the brutal murder of a South Korean government official in September, Kim's words of remorse were a "non-apology apology." He deflected blame for the people's suffering away from his poor leadership and placed it on the pandemic, natural disasters, and sanctions. For instance, he said that North Korea is the only country "that is faced with huge challenges and difficulties, like dealing with the anti-epidemic emergency and recovering from the catastrophic natural disasters, when everything is in short supply owing to the harsh and prolonged sanctions."
Taken together, these two messages, like typical regime propaganda, aim to harden the resolve of the Korean people in the North and spur them to stand strong in the face of hostile policies that Washington has enacted on the regime. The Korean people, said Kim, will prevail over external, man-made, and natural hardships. The development of these advanced military capabilities, he suggested, is proof that neither sanctions nor nature can bring down the regime.
Interestingly, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, Koreans in the North are skeptical of Kim's apology and what they described as his "crocodile tears." South Korea, the United States, and the international community should be as well. In addition, a message that should be sent to the Korean people in the North is that their suffering is actually a result of Kim's policy decisions, not sanctions. The responsibility for their suffering lies squarely on Kim's shoulders because he has chosen to spend the country's scarce resources on weapons and not on the wellbeing of its people.
Kim's third message was directed at South Korea. He extended an olive branch to the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, stating, "I also send this warm wish of mine to our dear fellow countrymen in the south, and hope that this health crisis would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when the north and south take each other's hand again." But this statement, like Kim's non-apology for the September killing of a South Korean official, is hollow.
For two years, the South has implemented confidence-building measures, without any reciprocity from the North, in accordance with the so-called Comprehensive Military Agreement that was part of the 2018 Pyongyang Declaration. In fact, from the February 2019 Hanoi summit through July 2020, the North conducted some 31 missile and rocket tests, which pose a direct threat to South Korean and U.S. forces. As the parade and Kim's own words demonstrate, the NKPA continues to develop offensive capabilities to attack the South.
Kim's supposed olive branch aims to convey the message that the Moon administration wants to hear so that Seoul will continue to pursue engagement, which Pyongyang can eventually exploit to extract concessions. Yet there has been no change to the regime's long-term goal of dominating the entire peninsula. Although the North has revised its constitution numerous times, Article Two has remained consistent: "The DPRK is a revolutionary state which has inherited brilliant traditions formed during the glorious revolutionary struggle against the imperialist aggressors, in the struggle to achieve the liberation of the homeland and the freedom and wellbeing of the people."
This provision makes the relationship between the North and the South zero-sum. The North remains committed to completing the revolution and achieving the liberation of the entire homeland.
In this context, the parade and speech provided the groundwork for the regime to continue its political warfare strategy and blackmail diplomacy - namely, the use of provocations and tensions to gain political and economic concessions - against both the United States and South Korea after the U.S. election.
Based on Pyongyang's history of provocations, the United States should expect North Korea to conduct a significant provocation, such as testing the new ICBM, as the U.S. presidential election nears. The regime's intent would be to bring the United States to the negotiating table. However, with the introduction of the new ICBM and SLBM, Kim may propose arms control talks rather than denuclearization negotiations, an idea some scholars favor. Such talks would solidify the North as a nuclear power and would be a victory for Kim's political warfare strategy.
South Korea and the United States must not be duped by Kim. The United States should choose to return to negotiations with Pyongyang only if the Kim regime provides concessions of its own to demonstrate its genuine commitment to a verifiable nuclear dismantlement. Without such proof, any direct negotiations are Kim's traps for either premature sanctions relief or other favored concessions.
South Korea must also re-examine the assumptions upon which the Moon administration has based its policies and strategies since Moon assumed office. Kim's actions and words demonstrate that he does not seek peaceful coexistence with the South. Kim has no intention of adhering to the Comprehensive Military Agreement and continues to pose an existential threat to the South, with the fourth-largest army in the world still postured for offensive operations just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Most importantly, Kim will not denuclearize the North. South Korea must accept these realities and re-evaluate its policies and strategies.
The United States and South Korea must respond appropriately to Pyongyang's messaging through this parade by ramping up the pressure to decisively change Kim's strategic rationale and counter his political warfare strategy.
David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the United States Army and retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD's Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.