As the clock struck midnight on October 10, 2020 in the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), the central square in Pyongyang lit up with pomp and lights to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The edited version of the event was broadcast the next day with the North Korean leader kicking off the festivities by expressing self-reflection, emotional about the hardships his people suffered this year, and sending good wishes to the South Korean people. A military parade occurred after his well-worded speech, displaying the largely expected new strategic weapons and an array of new conventional weapons systems.
The parade was literally a “new look” for the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) in almost every way. Besides the early dawn timing and bright lighting, the entire military parade featured offensive weapons with the exception of the improved anti-aircraft missile system. Also, the KPA soldiers had state-of-the-art-looking equipment prompting the question: Where did they get the money for all this new equipment and weapons? No doubt there will be much analysis trying to answer this question in the coming months, but for now, a closer look is in order at what North Korea wanted to show the world.
What caught the eye of most international media was the improved submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and a new type of “monster” missile which most experts agree has an intercontinental capability that could strike most of the United States. Some have even speculated this new ballistic missile might be designed to carry multiple warheads in the future. While nothing is proven about that being the North’s intention, any responsible planner must prepare for the worst, and there should be no doubt the North Koreans could achieve this capability if that is their goal.
A more subtle threat conveyed was the multiple, new transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) that were used during the parade. TELs are a critical component for being able to launch missiles and the number and unique features seemed to imply that the North Koreans are now able to manufacture them. TELs increase survivability through mobility and flexibility gained by the ability to launch at a variety of locations, giving the North Koreans a better first strike capability. The South Koreans will have to invest in a wide spectrum of capabilities to track these TELs, but it would be realistically impossible to guarantee a complete detection of all these systems.
Another concern is the potential proliferation of these technologies to other state and non-state actors. North Korea is not new to these accusations and there is direct and indirect proof of its weapons sales to the highest bidder, no matter who that may be. This implies that no one is safe from the North’s weapons and is yet another example of why its growing nuclear and missile capabilities are not just an issue “over there.” The military parade is a good opportunity for North Korea to showcase their weapon systems to potential buyers and it should come as no surprise if arms dealers were watching and seeking to make a deal for illegal arms.
This year’s parade was slightly smaller in size than in previous ceremonies featuring fewer troops and conventional weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. Regardless, it was effective in displaying the KPA’s all-around new look. The KPA units, for instance, were clad with a wide variety of new uniforms with multi-camouflage patterns and even new boots. New helmets, body armor, night-vision goggles, small unit communication devices and even wrist pad screens implied that the KPA is thinking about network warfare at the soldier level as well as night fighting. Variants of the AK-series rifles were carried with aiming scopes, flashlights and other accessories that improve marksmanship and close-quarter fighting, which is critical for urban warfare.
Although most of the equipment seems to be a generation or so behind the latest available to Western armies, and is probably a showcase sampling rather than standard issue throughout the KPA, it is still a strong warning to the South Korean military who are behind some of the North’s showcase initiatives.
Moreover, a wide range of new conventional weapons was displayed as well, including anti-tank mounted vehicles, tanks, self-propelled artillery, anti-aircraft systems and large-caliber rocket/missiles. The most obvious threat among these were the large-caliber rockets and ballistic missiles, which are tactical in nature but a threat to strategic targets in and around the peninsula. They are also ideal for chemical warheads which could cripple command and control facilities as well as airfields. The new set of chemical protection equipment worn and displayed during the parade might not be a coincidence.
The self-propelled artillery was also impressive and an improvement over the North’s previous conventional capability. That said, it is hard to understand the purpose of the new mobile gun system featured in the parade, as it is usually used for airborne units or light infantry that would require close support in faraway locations. This is not something North Korea would face in combat on the Korean Peninsula.
The most concerning weapons besides the ballistic missiles and self-propelled artillery were the new anti-aircraft missile system and anti-tank missiles. The surface-to-air missile (SAM) system paraded was a much-improved vertical launch system with a new radar. The new SAM system seems to be compatible in its performance to the Russian S-300 system. If this is the case, it would drastically increase the threat to South Korean aircraft, essentially neutralizing the air force’s ability to defend the South.
Finally, the new anti-tank missiles revealed looked like the Russian Kornet (9M133)-type weapon system which would be a significant threat to South Korean armor. The Kornet is infamous for its proven capability in combat. Moreover, there were multiple applications of this Kornet-like system featured in the parade’s armored vehicles and tanks. If this system is anything like the Russian Kornet, South Korea’s existing armor vehicles are ill-equipped to defend this kind of capability.
The North Korean parade was, as usual, a well-orchestrated event. As such we should also take notice of what North Korea did not display. For instance, North Korea has a sizable drone force that has been represented in previous parades, but none were shown this time around. How that threat has evolved remains unknown. Furthermore, there was no formation of parading cyber warriors either, despite North Korea being a “cyber superpower” with considerable capabilities. One must wonder if one of those formations disguised as cadets might actually have been a cyber unit.
While Kim Jong Un conveyed in his speech that his weapons were defensive in nature and would only be used as a deterrent, one must wonder who this deterrent is against: South Korea, the United States or his own people. North Korea’s weapons, especially nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, are more of a liability than an asset, bringing undue hardship to the North Korean people in the form of sanctions and continued hostility. As long as Kim does not realize this, his people will suffer more and the peninsula will be in danger. On the bright side, at least there were no nuclear backpacks.