North Korea unveils new submarine-launched missile

North Korea has unveiled a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile, described by state media as “the world’s most powerful weapon”.

Several of the missiles were displayed at a parade overseen by leader Kim Jong-un, reported state media.

The weapon’s actual capabilities remain unclear, as it is not known to have been tested.

The show of military strength comes days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president.

It also follows a rare political meeting where Mr Kim decried the US as his country’s “biggest enemy”.

Images released by North Korean state media showed at least four large black-and-white missiles being driven past flag-waving crowds.

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Analysts noted it was a previously unseen weapon. “New year, new Pukguksong,” tweeted North Korea expert Ankit Panda, using the North Korean name for their submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Clad in a leather coat and fur hat, Mr Kim is pictured smiling and waving as he watched the display in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, which also included infantry troops, artillery and tanks.

“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missile, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.

The event on Thursday did not showcase North Korea’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was unveiled at a much larger military parade in October. That colossal weapon is believed to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the US, and its size had surprised even seasoned analysts when it was put on show last year.

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The country’s latest display of its arsenal comes at the end of a five-yearly congress of the ruling Workers’ Party.

In his address to members last week, Mr Kim had pledged to expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military potential, outlining a list of desired weapons including long-range ballistic missiles capable of being launched from land or sea and “super-large warheads”.

He also said that the US was Pyongyang’s “biggest obstacle for our revolution and our biggest enemy… no matter who is in power, the true nature of its policy against North Korea will never change”.

Under Mr Kim’s leadership North Korea has made rapid progress in its weapons programme, which it says is necessary to defend itself against a possible US invasion.

The unveiling of the new missiles appears designed to send the incoming Biden administration a message of the North’s growing military prowess, say experts.

“They’d like us to notice that they’re getting more proficient with larger solid rocket boosters,” Mr Panda tweeted, noting what appeared to be new solid-fuel short-range ballistic missiles on display too. These missiles can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled varieties.

Over the last four years, Pyongyang has had an erratic relationship with the US under President Donald Trump’s administration. Mr Kim and Mr Trump engaged in mutual insults and threats of war before an unprecedented summit in Singapore in 2018 and declarations of love by the outgoing US leader.

Despite the apparent warming of relations, little concrete progress was made on negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programme and a second summit in Hanoi in 2019 broke down after the US refused Pyongyang’s demands for sanctions relief.

Flexing North Korea’s military muscle

Kim Jong-un has had a busy week. In this rare party congress at the start of a new year he’s earned a new title, pledged to build new nuclear weapons and now he’s shown the world some new missiles.

The general secretary, the title posthumously awarded to his father by which he is now known, had been pretty quiet in 2020 and appeared very few times in state media.

But 2021 is looking rather different. The party congress has offered him a grand daily domestic platform – even if it is not getting the international attention it may have done due to events in the United States and a global pandemic.

The parading vehicles include a new submarine-launched ballistic missile and new short-range ballistic missiles. This is a show of strength – flexing the military muscle once more to show the people of North Korea that despite the current bleak economic outlook, this impoverished country is capable of designing and building new strategic weapons.

It also offers a direct challenge to the incoming US administration.

North Korea appears willing to continue with its self-imposed isolation and being subject to strict economic sanctions, and the state has vowed to continue to build nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.

During the transfer of power, President Obama told Donald Trump that North Korea should be his top national security concern.

In the last four years a combination of US and UN sanctions, so-called “maximum pressure” policies and three summits between Mr Trump and Mr Kim have done nothing to alleviate those concerns.

Kim Jong-un has shown the new US president this week that he faces the daunting prospect of coming up with new solutions for this decades-old problem.

North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme

North Korea is widely believed to have missiles capable of striking long-range targets, including potentially the US mainland.

In October 2020, it unveiled what appeared to be one of the world’s largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The unveiling came at a time of difficult relations with the US and South Korea. Despite high-profile meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump there has been no agreement on the North’s nuclear programme.

In June, Pyongyang blew up the North-South liaison office on its side of the border.

Here’s what you need to know about the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programme and its military forces.

Missiles that can reach the US
Throughout 2017, North Korea tested several missiles demonstrating the rapid advances of its military technology.

The Hwasong-12 was thought to be able to reach as far as 4,500km (2,800 miles), putting US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam well within striking distance.

Later, the Hwasong-14 demonstrated even greater potential, with some studies suggesting it could travel as far as 10,000km if fired on a maximum trajectory.

This would have given Pyongyang its first truly intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of reaching New York.

Eventually, the Hwasong-15 was tested, peaking at an estimated altitude of 4,500km – 10 times higher than the International Space Station.

If fired on a more conventional “flatter” trajectory, the missile could have a maximum range of some 13,000km, putting all of the continental US in range.

In October 2020, North Korea unveiled its new ballistic missile.

It has not yet been named or tested. Like the Hwasong-15, it is a two-stage liquid fuelled missile but with a greater length and diameter. It could possibly allow for multiple warheads.

Until a test is carried out, it is unlikely we will know its exact range, but North Korea’s message is clear – that its technological ability is not to be underestimated.

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What we know about North Korea’s huge new missile

In July, Kim Jong-un said Pyongyang had developed nuclear weapons to win “absolute strength”, adding that the country was now “capable of defending ourselves… thanks to our reliable and effective self-defensive nuclear deterrent”.

Thermonuclear bombs
On 3 September 2017 North Korea conducted by far its largest nuclear test to date, at its Punggye-ri test site.

Estimates of the device’s explosive power, or yield, ranged from 100-370 kilotons. A yield of 100 kilotons would make the test six times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

North Korea claimed this test was its first thermonuclear weapon – the most potent form of nuclear explosion where an atomic detonation is boosted by a secondary fusion process to produce a far bigger blast.

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American military intelligence believes that North Korea has successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead to fit inside a missile.

In April 2018 North Korea announced it would suspend further nuclear tests because its capabilities had been “verified”.

North Korea then also promised to dismantle the Punggye-ri site and in May blew up some of the tunnels in the presence of foreign journalists but with no international experts .

Pyongyang also said then that it would destroy all its nuclear material enrichment facilities.

Millions of soldiers
North Korea has one of the largest standing armies in the world – with more than one million soldiers and estimated reserves of some five million.

Much of its equipment is old and obsolete, but its conventional forces could still inflict massive damage on South Korea in the event of war.

North Korea also has around 200,000 special forces troops which could be expected to infiltrate the South in the event of any conflict.

They could potentially exploit a semi-secret network of 20-25 large tunnels which span the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – the border area – emerging behind South Korean and American forward lines.

A further threat comes from thousands of North Korean artillery pieces and rocket launchers deployed along the border. Their firepower could devastate South Korea, including the capital Seoul, which at a distance of less than 60km, is well within range.

Chemical weapons could also be used. In 2012 the South Korean government assessed that North Korea could have between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, potentially one of the largest stockpiles on Earth.

American forces in South Korea and the wider region
The United States has had a military presence on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War. Today, South Korea has the third highest deployment of US troops anywhere in the world.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) there are some 28,000 US troops stationed across South Korea including almost 9,000 air force personnel. In addition, the US has some 300 M1 Abrams tanks and armoured vehicles deployed.

Washington has also installed its controversial THAAD missile defence system at Seongju in South Korea, which would be used shoot down North Korean short and medium range missiles in the event of war.

In the wider region, Japan hosts more US forces than any other nation, with some 47,050 deployed, according to the IISS, the majority being naval personnel. It also has an aircraft carrier based in Japan.

There are also significant US forces on the US Pacific island of Guam, which is sometimes described as a “permanent aircraft carrier”.

North Korea has previously threatened to fire missiles at the waters around Guam.