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Flexing its military muscle, North Korea shows off missiles–and potential new leader

North Korea chairman Kim Jong Un. (Kremlin/Released)
February 11, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

With his wife and daughter at his side, supreme leader Kim Jong Un looked on as missile after missile was paraded past his podium as North Korea flexed its military muscle on Army Foundation Day.

Wednesday night’s set-piece marking the 75th anniversary of the North Korean army showed off both Kim’s bloodline — daughter Kim Ju Ae is a potential successor to the three-generation, hereditary regime — and the nation’s military arsenal. 

More long-range missiles were on display than ever before, including what experts believe is part of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile. Such a missile would give North Korea a tactical advantage because it needs substantially less time to prepare to launch than a liquid-fueled one.

“Liquid fueled ICBMs need to be prepared and fueled before they can be used in a conflict. And for North Korea, this is a problem because the United States might seek to preempt” its launch, Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service.

“A solid-fuel ICBM is going to provide North Korea with a much more responsive and survivable ICBM capability in a crisis,” he said.

A new missile displayed in Wednesday night’s parade was likely only a canister that a solid-fuel ICBM would be launched out of, said Ian William of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pyongyang is “making a lot of strides in solid-fuel engine development.”

The rate of development of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland was “alarming” to Robert Soofer, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy.

“We know they have the missiles and the nuclear warheads. We don’t know for certain whether they can successfully reach the U.S. homeland and survive reentry into the atmosphere,” he said. “Implications are big for U.S. homeland missile defense,” said Soofer. 

Soofer said that the Biden administration’s policy was to stay ahead of any North Korean threats to U.S. territory.

Daughter by his side

Dressed in a black hat and coat and looking on with her father as troops marched by in lockstep in the winter night air was Kim Jong Un’s daughter Kim Ju Ae, believed to be 9 years old. 

Her presence on the podium sparked speculation that the Supreme Leader might be starting to position her to one day take his place as ruler.

The North Korean media’s description of Kim Ju Ae as a “noble child” is a clear indication that her father has big plans for her, said Cha Du-hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think tank in Seoul. 

But other experts said it was far too early to say.

Parading his wife and daughter at important events is more about the image that Kim Jong Un wants to project for himself rather than indicating anything at all about succession, said Bruce Bennett of the California-based RAND Corporation.

“Why bring out his daughter? Well, he’s just a dad. He’s a good old guy. You know, he’s human,” he said. “I think this is all about Kim Jong Un’s image as opposed to succession.” 

Because she would be the first female leader of the country, it would take quite some time to condition the people and the existing power structures to accept a woman in charge, said Ken Gause of the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses think tank.

“If something were to happen to Kim, no, she’s way too young and this is a Confucian-based society. It’s male dominated,” said Gause. “If you’re going to do something like this, you’re probably going to have to get started early and spend not years but probably decades socializing this with the larger leadership.”

Even if Kim Ju Ae is being groomed to be leader, she is still very young, said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.

“If Kim Jong-un were to pass away in the near term, his sister would more likely assume power,” he said. “But there is no indication that either would pursue policies any different than their predecessors.”

Klingner said that observers “naively speculated” that sweeping reforms would come to North Korea when Kim Jong Il came to power in 1994 and when Kim Jong Un succeeded him in 2011.

“We should be more focused on the multi-warhead ICBM that can target U.S. cities than the little girl standing in front of the missile,” he said.

‘Frustrating the imperialists’

North Korean media reports about the parade briefly mentioned the daughter was in attendance, but trumpeted the military’s accomplishment in its typical florid prose.

“Our young regular armed forces developed into the most powerful entity that stockpiled overwhelming force capable of successfully frustrating the arbitrary practices of the imperialists, by building up their capabilities with the red idea and self-reliance in the arduous and protracted course of the revolution,” the state-run Korea Central News Agency said of the parade on Thursday.

The Hwasong-17 missile and its 11-axle launch vehicles that were in the parade suggest that Pyongyang is making progress, but it has more work ahead, said Patrick Cronin, Asia Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.

“Clearly North Korea wants to show that it is making progress on its nuclear-armed missile force,” he said. 

David Schmerler from the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies noted that observers would have to wait until a test launch to know what that particular missile looks like.

“This is the second iteration of a cannistered solid-fuel ICBM that North Korea has shown us during a military parade,” he said. “This newer variant is longer than the previously shown system but that is about as much as we can get from it for now.”

Schmerler said that because of the missile’s size, North Korea would need to build a new ejection test stand, because existing ones are too small.

A spokesperson for the Pentagon declined to comment on intelligence matters, but said that Washington would work closely with its allies in the region to address North Korean threats and work toward denuclearization.

A State Department spokesperson acknowledged the parade, calling it a propaganda exercise but did not comment further. He said Washington’s offer of dialogue to Pyongyang still remains on the table.