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Special articles and reports on timely nonproliferation issues by CNS staff.
Updated: Nov 2, 2010
Missiles, Maneuvers and Mysteries: Review of Recent Developments in North Korea
Activities around the DPRK's leadership succession and nuclear activities have garnered attention recently. A new report examines recent DPRK actions, including the parading of new missiles systems.
Catherine Boye and Melissa Hanham with Seungho Lee
Posted: November 2, 2010
North Korea gained significant attention since late September on numerous fronts. A series of military and political appointments for members of Kim Jong-il(김정일)'s inner circle towards the end of September, followed by the unusual convening of the Third Party Conference, coincided with the release by a U.S.-based NGO of satellite imagery showing construction near the destroyed cooling tower at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility. Events culminated with the October 10 massive military parade in honor of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party. The parade featured a number of never before seen weapons systems, as well as North Korea's heir apparent Kim Jong-un(김정은) in his first appearance before international press. Most recently, on October 21, unconfirmed reports indicated activity at the site of North Korea's previous nuclear tests, sparking concerns that Pyongyang might be planning a third nuclear test.
October 10 Military Parade
While military parades are not uncommon in North Korea, the October 10 event was distinctive for two reasons: it was the first major public appearance of Kim Jong-un; and it was the first chance for the world media to see several new North Korean weapons systems.
Bringing the Next Leader Front and Center
The October 10 parade was officially in honor of the 65th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party, but it also served as the symbolic unveiling of North Korea's next leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong-il, and is thought to be 27 or 28 years old. Little is known about the younger Kim, although it has been reported that he was educated for a brief period in Switzerland. On September 27, 2010, Kim Jong-un was promoted to the rank of general alongside Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong-hui(김경희)—who is married to Chang Song-taek(장성택), the head of the National Defense Commission and considered one of Kim Jong-il's closest confidents. Although neither Kim Jong-un nor Kim Kyong-hui have significant military experience, Kim Jong-il may be trying, with these appointments, to pay homage to the military—whose support he relies on—while keeping power closely tied to his family. Kim Jong-un was also appointed Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party, and a member of the Central Committee. The publication of these appointments marked the first time Kim Jong-un was mentioned in North Korean state media, and was followed a day later by the convening of a meeting of the Workers Party—a very rare event—which provided an appropriate forum for the release of the first state-sanctioned images of the heir apparent.
The military parade in October offered unprecedented access to foreign press, highlighting it as a natural backdrop to what is expected to be a highly choreographed succession process. One hundred members of the international press were given access to the parade. While their movements were still heavily controlled by government minders, some members of the media noted a moderation of control and were able, for instance, to interview North Korean citizens as they left the parade venue. This relaxation of controls, although slight, highlighted the idea that this event was orchestrated as a means to introduce Kim Jong-un to the world.
grandstand, Kim Jong-un watched the parade between Kim
Yong-chun(김영춘), Director of
People's Armed Forces, and Lee
Yong-ho(리영호), Military Chief of
Staff—two of the DPRK's most influential
leaders. This arrangement
symbolizes Kim Jong-un's place as the official successor of Kim Jong-il.
Despite the younger Kim's new military rank, and the predominance of
military leaders surrounding him on the podium, Kim Jong-un wore a dark civilian
suit in the style of his grandfather Kim
first leader. Some speculate that the apparel was meant to evoke the memory of
his grandfather and therefore his hereditary ties to
High-ranking Chinese officials also attended the parade, indicating the importance that North Korea continues to place on the relationship. Zhou Yongkang(周永康), a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, stood directly on Kim Jong-il's right and to the left of Kim Yong-nam(김영남), Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea.
The October 10 parade was notable also for its display of three never-before seen North Korean missile systems: the Musudan, a new Nodong variant, and a new surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. The Musudan is North Korea's newest intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), and is thought to have a range of between 2,500 km and 4,000 km. The uncertainty associated with the range is due to the fact that the missile has never been flight tested by North Korea. The Musudan appears to be based on the Russian R-27/SS-N-6, though the North Korean missile is longer and wider. The Musudan was reportedly first displayed during a military parade in 2007, though the pictures of the event distributed by Pyongyang did not show images of the missile; the October 2010 parade was, therefore, the first time the missile has been shown to Western audiences.
The Musudan has been in development since the early 1990s and appears to have been deployed around 2003—although the exact date is unclear. While the system remains untested, a viable IRBM system could represent a significant technological achievement for North Korea because the missile is a more advanced design than either the Scud variants or Nodong systems that North Korea produced and tested previously.
The parade also gave the international media its first glimpse of a new Nodong variant. Very little is known about this missile. The most prominent feature of this variant is the triconic nosecone, which appears similar to the Iranian Ghadr-1 missile. It is well known that Iran and North Korea have collaborated in the past on nuclear and missile technologies but the appearance of the distinctive triconic nosecone suggests a deeper collaboration than previously believed. A formerly unknown SAM system is the third "new" system displayed in the parade. As with the new Nodong variant, there is little known about the system. Some media reports have claimed it is a copy of the Russian S-300 system but that seems unlikely due to a difference in the size of the system's transporter erector launchers (TELs).
Building at Yongbyong and other Nuclear Activities
South Korea's deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo(김태효) gave an in-depth interview to Joongang Ilbo in early October, stating that North Korea is currently operating all nuclear programs including Yongbyon's plutonium program and highly enriched uranium (HEU) programs at other locations. Potentially corroborating some of these South Korean claims was satellite imagery made available by the Institute for Science and International Security at the end of September, which appears to show two new structures near the site of Yongbyon's demolished cooling tower. Additionally, excavation and heavy construction equipment can be seen in the same area. In early October, South Korea's Minister of National Defense, Kim Tae-young(김태영) asserted that the Yongbyon facilities were being "recovered." Another ROK official acknowledged that Seoul does not know the purpose of the two new buildings but noted that it was clear that North Korea had not fully stopped its nuclear activities. Regardless of the physical purpose of the buildings, the activities around the cooling tower—a very visible symbol of the North Korean nuclear program and efforts to stop it—is undoubtedly North Korea's attempt to deliver a message that they do not feel obligated by agreements negotiated under the Six Party Talks.
Recent statements by high-level South Korean officials have claimed that North Korea's HEU programs are also ongoing. North Korea boasted progress previously, including in September 2009 when KCNA reported that "experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase." Despite these claims by the DPRK, many experts believe that North Korea still needs a few more years before it can operate a full-scale plant capable of producing HEU in the quantities needed for a weapons program.
Additionally, recent reports from unnamed ROK officials indicate that U.S. reconnaissance satellites detected movement by vehicles and people in Punggye-ri area where the DPRK conducted its previous two nuclear tests. The movements most likely indicate repairs to a collapsed tunnel, according to the source. However, as with the construction around the Yongbyon cooling tower, North Korea may be conducting these activities in order to raise international concern about its intentions.
Although North Korea's true intentions are—as always—a mystery, it is likely that their heightened activities point to their desire to make the succession from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un as smooth, yet intimidating, as possible. North Korea watchers, particularly those in Seoul, fear that during the current period of transition, an inexperienced Kim Jong-un may feel the need to prove himself—possibly leading to irresponsible use of North Korea's nuclear assets. Additionally, North Korea has shown no qualms about selling or bartering its technology to other interested parties, making its nuclear activities both a horizontal and a vertical proliferation risk.
October 10 Military Parade [Src: KCNA]
Musudan [Src: KCNA]
Nodong variant [Src: KCNA]
New Surface-to-Air Missile [Src: www.top81.cn]
CNS DPRK Experts
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