Once the Olympics is over, testing is likely to resume and the long-running crisis between the United States and North Korea will be with us again.
North Korea held a large military parade at 10 a.m. local time. The parade was subdued by comparison to past parades. In fact, it was not carried live on North Korean state television, but rebroadcast later. This meant that it happened in the dead of night here in the United States and is sure to be buried by the coverage of the Olympics opening in South Korea.
And yet, despite an obvious effort not to make headlines, the parade itself still contained some surprises, at least if you are, like me, interested in North Korea’s growing missile capabilities.
The parade was distinguished by what we did not see as much as it was by what rolled through Kim Il-sung square. There were five types of missiles displayed—all of which we had seen before. But what was missing? Well, for one thing, North Korea showed no Scud or Nodong missiles. These missiles have, historically, been the backbone of North Korea’s missile force and a staple of military parades. Instead, we saw what looks like an extended-range variant of North Korea’s Toksa short-range ballistic missile and launchers for the Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile.
These missiles are solid-fueled, which makes them easier for North Korea to operate. Liquid fuel is nasty and dangerous, and it imposes a number of operational constraints that can only be partially overcome. There is a reason that the vast majority of United States, Russian and Chinese missiles are solid-fueled. The message is that North Korea too is making that transition, and these these new generation missiles will come to replace the several hundred Scud and Nodong missiles that use liquid fuel.
The Toksa, which is a short-range ballistic missile, was again on display, although in a very new configuration. The truck carrying it now holds two missiles, rather than just one. And there are other changes, too. It’s possible this is something new, but for moment I am leaning toward it being an improved variant of the old missile, one with a longer range. Still, we’ll have to scrutinize this one closely over the coming days. The Pukguksong-2 was first seen in the parade last year—that now seems like a million years ago. Oddly, it counts as old news.
North Korea’s longer-range missiles still rely on liquid-fuel, at least for now. But there is a shift coming, sooner or later. That’s what the parade seems to suggest, anyway.