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Don’t read too much into North Korea’s exclusion of ICBMs in recent military parade

North Korea staged another large military parade along its main plaza in the capital city of Pyongyang Sunday, as the country celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding.

And while the parade featured many troops and lots of military hardware including tanks and artillery, observers noted that ICBMs were notably absent from the parade.

In recent years two intercontinental systems, the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, were mainstays of large military parades, including one in February of this year. The inclusion of those systems often provoked President Donald Trump into threatening military action and further sanctions.



But the absence of those missiles on Sunday was seen as an encouraging sign by Washington, “which has been urging the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to ease tensions and focus on diplomacy aimed at ending his country’s nuclear program,” The New York Times reported [source].

For several weeks, private-sector analysts and government intelligence officials have been poring over satellite photographs as Pyongyang prepared for the Sunday event. Some have said that the exclusion of the ICBMs could mean that Kim is serious about his negotiations with the U.S.

This particular event appeared to have been designed to deemphasize North Korean militarism in favor of Kim’s efforts to rebuild his country’s struggling, sanctioned economy.

President Trump praised Kim for not including the ICBMs in the parade and said that his diplomatic efforts were bearing fruit in a series of tweets.

There were missiles included in the parade, but they were far fewer in number and with much shorter ranges.

Also, the Times noted that about half of the parade focused on civilian groups including nurses and construction workers.

Of note: The No. 3 official for the Chinese Communist Party, Li Zhanshu, an envoy of President Xi Jinping, was on hand to view the parade with Kim.




Analysis: There has been mixed reaction to this parade and the exclusion of ICBMs.

“By keeping ICBMs out, Kim Jong-un showed that he did not want to antagonize President Trump,” Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, South Korea, told the Times. “The composition of the parade appears to reflect Kim Jong-un’s focus on dialogue and economic development.”

But does it? Others have cautioned that one should not read too much into appearances. 

“Avoiding drawing attention to its nuclear weapons is different from wanting to give them up soon,” warned Tong Zhao, a fellow with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. “Future denuclearization negotiations will still be difficult, long, and full of setbacks.”

He argues that the North Korean leader’s strategy is to pit China against the U.S. in order to exploit mutual distrust, suspicion, and strategic rivalry. “Refraining from showing long-range missiles at this parade helps keep the current diplomatic engagement with the U.S. on track while holding the hand of the Chinese envoy (Editor’s note: Kim literally did that during the parade) as everyone cheers and helps keep China close too. It was indeed a great show,” Zhao said.

U.S. intelligence reports this week that the North is continuing to produce nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but that Pyongyang has stepped up efforts to conceal that work. [source] In particular, in the three months since meeting with President Trump in Singapore, Kim has ordered his military to conceal the entrance to a warhead storage facility (and the president is aware of this intelligence).



“Since the beginning of 2018, Kim has surrendered and dismantled no nuclear weapons but has likely built five to nine new nuclear weapons. So he has not frozen his nuclear program and he has certainly not been denuclearizing; instead, he has been nuclearizing,” said Bruce W. Bennett, a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and an expert in Northeast Asia military affairs. [source]

U.S. intelligence officials have also said that some warheads have been moved out of that facility as well, though it’s not clear where they were taken — something the North Koreans do often in order to confuse U.S. sensors and make them more difficult to locate.

There is also this: Kim is said to be extremely concerned that the U.S. will conduct a preemptive attack aimed at taking him out as well as the country’s senior leadership. That’s always possible, but it would have to be done without providing any advanced notice to China (and Russia, for that matter) over fears that they would alert Kim to the coming attack. And that could prove risky, as it may provoke a military response from China.

One possible ‘warning’ sign of future U.S. action: The Pentagon’s ordering of all American civilians out of South Korea, something Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reportedly told the president never to do unless he was fully prepared to go to war.


 

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