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North Korea Faces the US: Will It Show off New Strategic Weapons on the Korean Workers’ Party 70th Anniversary?

Han Ki-Bum(chair research fellow, North Korea Research Institute)


              Recently, there have been media reports on two different kinds of ‘October Surprise.’ One is regarding the speculation that President Trump will hurriedly announce the introduction of Covid 19 vaccine before the impending election in November. The other has to do with the possibility of a surprise US-North Korea summit in October.

              The former is good news. Although the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine needs to be verified, it will be a great relief for people who are fatigued by the pandemic. The latter, however, will only increase our frustration, as Pyongyang flatly rejected the idea of a summit and it is physically impossible due to lack of time. Rather, North Korea is likely to unveil a new strategic weapon to boast its nuclear capability on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.


= Kim Jong Un, “The world will witness a new strategic weapon.”


              At the end of December Kim Jong Un declared at the Party plenary meeting a strategic transition from ‘denuclearization talks’ to ‘nuclear power’. He declared that “we will show you a shocking real action in order to have the US pay the price for making our people suffer and hindering our development” and that “the world will soon witness a new strategic weapon that our republic will possess.” He added that “North Korea will not expect the US to lift sanctions and will continue to develop strategic weapons” and “maintain strong nuclear deterrence at all times.” However, he left some room for negotiation by stating that the level of deterrence will be escalated depending on Washington’s stance towards Pyongyang.

              So far this year North Korea has not unveiled what that “shocking real action” is. Instead, Pyongyang continues to suggest that it will “enhance nuclear capability” and take measures vis-a-vis the US. At the Party Central Military Committee on May 24th, Kim Jong Un mentioned that North Korea will “further bolster nuclear deterrence, and operate a high level of strategic forces.” The June 24th preliminary meeting of the Committee, where “military action against South Korea” was put on hold, stated that it “reviewed documents concerning measures to strengthen military deterrence.” The Party Politburo meeting on July 2nd mentioned it “studied issues related to important foreign policy projects.” The Party Military Committee informed that it discussed  behind closed doors “the issue of military deterrence.”

              On June 12th, the two year anniversary of the Singapore summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Lee Sun Kwon made an announcement that “our strategic objective is to develop decisive capability to deal with the long term military threat from the US.” In July a series of announcements by the First Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee, the Director of the US Division Kwon Jung Keun and the Party Deputy <부부장> Kim Yeo Jung rejected the ‘possibility of Pyongyang-Washington dialogue within this year.’

              Kim Yeo Jung’s announcement on July 10 informed in detail Pyongyang’s position regarding the negotiation with the US. It basically states that the US-NK talk is meaningless, North Korea will continue to expand its nuclear capability, and any future talks should focus on the withdrawal of US’s hostile policy rather than North Korea’s denuclearization. It reiterated the nuclearization strategy that Kim Jong Un declared at the December Party <전원회의>.

              Kim Yeo Jung stated that “US-NK summit is useless because Washington maintains its hostile stance against North Korea and is just dragging its feet” and that “it is time to give more thoughts on enhancing the capability to deal with the US hostility.” She also mentioned that the main agenda for US-NK negotiation should shift from “denuclearization vs. lifting sanctions” to “withdrawing hostility vs. resumption of the summit.” In addition she conveyed the message that “Kim Jong Un ‘wishes success in President Trump’s endeavours’ and the victory in the coming presidential election.” The table below summarizes public messages from the above mentioned North Korean figures towards the US.



<Table> North Korea’s Messages to the US since December 2019 Party <전원회의>


Summary of Speeches and Statements

Report to Kim Jong Un at Party <전원회의> on December 28-31, 2019


- “we will show you a shocking real action in order to have the US pay the price for making our people suffer and hindering our development” and “the world will soon witness a new strategic weapon that our republic will possess.”

- “North Korea will not expect the US to lift sanctions and will continue to develop strategic weapons” and “maintain strong nuclear deterrence at all times.” “The level of deterrence will be escalated depending on Washington’s stance in the future.”


Kim Yeo Jung statement about letter from Trump to Kim Jong Un regarding Covid on March 4, 2020


- “US President sending a personal letter in an effort to maintain wonderful relationship with <위원장 동지> shows good judgement” and “such a letter shows special and solid personal relationship (between the two leaders)”

- “I personally think that rather than exchanging personal letters between two leaders, fair relationship dynamic between the two countries should be guaranteed ... (the US) should withdraw unilateral and greedy thinking.”


Foreign Minister Lee Sun Kwon on June 12, 2020

- Statement on the occasion of the second anniversay of Singapore Meeting: “Our strategic goal is to definitely strength our power in order to manage long-term military threats from the US.”

<외무성 1부상> Choi Sun Hwa statement on July 4, 2020

- “It is pointless to sit down at the negotiating table with the US which just uses it as a tool for diversion from their political crisis.”

- In reponse to President Moon’s statement that “he intends to do his best to let Washinton and Pyongyang to sit down at the neogotiation table before the US Presidential election”, Choi stated that “it is an unwelcome attempt for mediation without considering our position.”


Foregin Ministry US Bureau Director Kwon Jung Kuen statemnt on July 7, 2020


- On Deputy Secretary of State Bieguan’s visit to Korea (July 7-9), Kwon emphasized, “I would like to make it clear again that we have no intention of sitting at the table with the Americans.”

- Kwon commented, “It is laughable that South Korea is worried about wiping someone else’s nose when they are not even able to wipe their own.”

Kim Yeo Jung statement on July 10, 2020

- “I think there is serious conflict and difference in opinion between North Korea and the US, and, as long as there is no change in the American position, summit meeting is useless and futile.”

- “On June 30th, in Panmoonjum Kim Jong Un declared that we will not make a deal without a guarantee for our institutions and people’s safety and future, and we will survive on our own. Since then, we completely removed the issue of sanctions from the negotiation agenda with the US.”

- “I think that the basic agenda of ‘denuclearization vs. lifting sanctions’ in the past North Korea-US negotiations needs to be changed to ‘ending hostility vs. the resumption of NK-US negotiations’”.

- “Although Kim Jong Un’s personal confidence in Trump is without a doubt strong, we have to deal with the next US administration as well as Trump. We need to be more concerned about our ability to respnod to the continuous US hostility toward North Korea than the friendship with the current leader in power.”

- “We are not saying that we will never carry out denuclearization, but want to make sure that we cannot do it now. Realizing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is possible only if many changes, that is, irreversible and significant measures by the US side as well as our actions.”


Kim Jong Un speech at <노병대회> on July 27, 2020

- There will be no war in this land thanks to our reliable and effective nuclear deterrence and the safety and future of our country will be firmly secured.“



= Enhancing Nuclear and Missile Capabilities amidst US-NK Talks


              The National Intelligence Service reported in May 2020 at the Parliamentary Intelligence Committee that “5 megawatt reactor in Yongbyon stopped operation since the end of 2018 and no sign of preparing to start reprocessing facility was detected.” “There were no unusual movements at Poongeyri testing site or Dongchangri missile launch site,” according to the Service. The Service is also paying close attention to “the situation surrounding the launch of the new submarine that North Korea made public last year.”[1] The following is the summary of the developments in North Korean nuclear and missile related facilities since Kim Jong Un expressed ‘denuclearization’ in the spring of 2018.


              Ongoing production of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU): International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) analysis concluded that North Korea continued to enrich uranium during the past year. IAEA annual report observed vehicle movements in Yongbyun’s nuclear fuel rod production facility and cooling system operations, which suggested that North Korea is producing HEU in the centrifuge. The report pointed to the possibility of uranium enrichment in other facilities in Kangsun near Pyongyang. It also reported that there was no sin of plutonium extraction during the same period. IAEA ascertained that Youngbyun’s 5MWe reactor, known to produce weapon’s grade plutonium, halted operation since the beginning of December 2018.[2]


              Poonggyeri Nuclear Test Site Remain Demolished, Dongchanri Missile Launch Site is Rebuilt: At the plenary session of the Workers’ Party in April 2018, North Korea announced ‘the end of parallel stance’ and declared to suspend nuclear test and ICBM test launch and the closure of the Poonggyeri test site. In June the same year, Kim Jon Un told President Trump at the Singapore summit that Pyongyang will close ‘missile engine test site’ and in return squeezed out Trump’s comment that he  ‘understood the need to suspend US-ROK joint training.” In May 2018 North Korea invited foreign journalists to witness the demolition of Poonggyeri nuclear test site[3] and it was confirmed that in July Dongchangri missile launch site was partially dismantled.

              From February 2019, however, movements were detected in Dongchangri site. In March NIS reported at the Intelligence Committee that “North Korea started the restoration of the facility in February and nearly completed it in March.” North Korea also tried to conceal the evidence of preparing ICBM launch at Dongchangri site. It laid connecting tracks between the underground launch station and the adjacent railway, and constructed a missile assembly building. Tracks were laid so that missiles could be moved to the launch site immediately after assembly and screen fences were erected. Pyongyang confirmed the restoration of the Dongchangri facility by unveiling that it conducted ‘an important (rocket) test’ in December last year.


              Improving ICBM Engines → Possibility of Unveiling ‘Solid fuel ICBM’ at October Military Parade: On December 7 and 13, 2019[4] North Korea made public that it conducted an ‘important test’ that will have an impact on its ‘strategic standing’ at the Dongchangri missile launch site. On December 14th, 국방과학원 spokesperson declared that  “a series of recent achievements will bolster our nuclear deterrence.” On the same day, the Joint Chief of Staff Park Jung Chun stated that “materials, experience and technology from the test by the military defence research will be used to clearly prevail over the American threat.” North Korea is believed to have tested ways to improve the ICBM engine.[5]

              One US expert on North Korea expected that Pyongyang would unveil solid fuel ICBM during the Party’s 75th anniversary parade in October. According to the expert, given that solid fuel missiles are much more stable and able to launch faster than liquid fuel versions, if solid fuel ICBM indeed appears during the parade, it would mean an advancement of North Korea’s missile technology to the next generation.[6] North Korea is currently rehearsing the parade at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang.

              In the meantime, production of ICBM parts and movement of vehicles at Shinumdong missile research cluster in Pyongyang have been confirmed (NPR report, March 8, 2019). Responding to the above mentioned developments the US government issued an ‘interagency alert’ regarding North Korea’s ballistic missile parts procurement. State Department’s International Security and Non-proliferation Bureau, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security issued alerts against North Korea’s ballistic missile part procurement, and warned against, even inadvertently, aiding North Korea’s attempt to secure technology and equipment. Assistant Secretary of the State Stilwell stated that the interagency alert is “a measure to let Pyongyang know that it should be talking instead of threatening” <원문 대조 요망> and confirmed the principle that ‘제제는 협상의 동력.’[7]<원문 대조 요망>


Expanding Concrete Structure for ICBM Launch and Increased Launch Pad Production: North Korea recently constructed concrete structure for ICBM launch in dozens of locations around the country. By installing foundations to prevent errors in launch angle  or damage to mobile launch pads due to vibrations, North Korea now has dozens of missile launch pads similar to the ones in Dongchangri.[8] Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lewis of Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies last year revealed that “North Korea expanded ‘March 16 Factory’ located in Pyongsung, which is involved in ICBM launch pad development and production.” March 16 Factory produces trucks, trailers and mobile launch pads.[9]


Developing a New Model SLBM and Building a Submarine Capable of Loading Three SLBMs → Possibility of Testing SLBM Launch Test: On November 2, 2019 North Korea test-launched new ‘Bukkuksung-3 type’ SLBM in Wonsan. ‘Bukkuksung-3 type’ is believed to be launched from an underwater barge, and showed remarkable improvement in flight and warhead load capacity compared with Bukkuksung-1 type launched in April 2016. New model submarine is also expected to be complete and deployed soon. North Korea is currently converting in Shinpo Shipyard a Romeo Class submarine into a new model submarine capable of carrying three SLBMs (2000ton class, width 7m, length 80m).[10]

NIS in May 2020 stated that “Whale Class submarine and underwater launch apparatus are being constantly identified in Shinpo Shipyard.” Korea Institute for Defence Analysis suggested the possibility of SLBM launch. According to KIDA, “given that the UN Security Council so far has never passed a resolution for sanction against SLBM test, North Korea may presume that it may not incur much political-diplomatic cost”; “North Korea will choose an action enough to induce the US to the negotiating table but not enough to scuttle the negotiation.”[11]



= Kim Jong Un Regime Tempted to Instigate Crisis Situation, Facing Three Misfortunes (Sanctions, Covid-19, Typhoon)


              North Korea declared that it will pursue the goal of securing ‘nuclear power’ status in the long term and will enhance its missile and nuclear capability. Although Pyongyang will have to delay negotiations with the US until after the US presidential election, it will pose threatening actions to draw attention from Washington during the hiatus. Such threats could include a large-scale military parade displaying ICBMs on the Workers’ Party 75th Anniversary, launching a new SLBM in Shinpo Shipyard and SLBM test launch.

              Due to continuing economic sanctions, Covid-19 and floods and typhoon damage in August and September, North Korea economy is in dismal condition. So much so that Kim Jong Un admitted ‘economic failure’ and mentioned “readjustment of economic tasks this year.” Kim Jong Un regime’s priority is to recover from typhoon damage. After the 8th Party Congress in January next year, popular discontent can build up and the regime may be tempted to inflate external tension to maintain domestic consolidation. Next year, therefore, we need to be watchful of the Kim regime’s attempt to draw Washington's attention and divert internal frustration by instigating a crisis situation.



[1] Yonhap News. May 6, 2020.

[2] Yonhap News, September 13, 2020; ‘North Korea Strategy Report’ from Pentagon’s Army Department on August 18, 2020 speculated that Pyongyang has 20-60 nuclear weapons and can annually produce six. Yonhap News. August 18, 2020.

[3] Among the four tunnels at the site, having destroyed one after the first nuclear test, North Korea seemed to have demolished the remaining three. In October 2019, however, the Joint Chief of Staff stated that “tunnel number 3 and 4 could be repaired and used.” Another show resembling the 2008 Yongbyun cooling tower demolition was suspected. TV Chosun, News 9 Focus, December 9, 2019; A former IAEA Director Heinonen mentioned that “(North Korea) achieved successful results through sufficient tests” and that, as North Korea already attained the warhead miniaturization technology. “any nuclear test at the time had a political objective.”  Demolishing the nuclear facility was militarily meaningless. Chosun Daily, December 3, 2019;  On August 3rd, 2020 Reuter, citing an expert panel report from the UN Committee on North Korea  Sanction, reported that only the entrances of the tunnels were damaged and there was no evidence of complete demolition. Yonhap News, August 4, 2020.

[4] On December 8, 2019 국방과학원 spokesperson announced that “a very important test was conducted at the West Sea missile launch site on the afternoon of December 7th,” “국방과학원 reported this significant test result to the Central Committee of the Korea Workers’ Party,” and “this important test result will have significant impact on changing the strategic standing of our republic.” Chosun Central News Agency, December 8, 2019.

[5] Experts initially speculated that the ‘important test’ on December 7th would be solid fuel ICBM test, but later suspected that it was ICBM first stage engine test on the 7th, and the second stage engine test on the 13th given the duration of the test (7 minutes) as informed by North Korea. Yonhap News, December 14, 2019.

[6] Harry Kazianis who is in charge of Korean affairs at Center for the National Interest mentioned in his piece published in September 2nd  issue of American Conservative that, based on conversations with a high level White House official and a number of intelligence officials, ‘unveiling of solid fuel ICBM during the Party anniversary is the most likely scenario.’ Yonhap News, September 3, 2020.

[7] Yonhap News, September 3, 2020.

[8] Citing Korean and US sources, Asahi Daily reported in December last year that recently expanded concrete foundations in North Korea are scores of meters in length and width, which is wide enough to hold ICBM mobile launch pad. Asahi Daily, December 2, 2019.

[9] Chosun Daily, December 23, 2019 citing NBC broadcast December 21, 2019.

[10] On July 23, 2019 Chosun Central News Agency reported, “Kim Jong Un inspected the new submarine. It is ready for operational deployment in the East Sea”; NIS, “North Korea’s new submarine ready for deployment, SLBM launch possible,” Chosun Daily, November 5, 2019.

[11] KIDA internal report. ‘The Background of North Korea’s Recent Aggressive Actions and Future Prospects.’ Cited in Yonhap News, July 8, 2020.