The Two Koreas’ Recent Arms Displays Are Sending Very Different Messages

North Korea has announced that it successfully tested a new, smaller submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, on Tuesday. State media claimed the missile—launched from the same submarine from which Pyongyang tested its first Pukguksong-1 SLBM in August 2016—has “advanced control guidance technologies, including flank mobility and gliding skip mobility,” designed to make it harder to track and intercept. The name of the submarine used for the launch—the “8.24 Yongung”—also seems noteworthy, as a reflection of the importance Pyongyang puts on this vessel: It means “hero” and apparently signifies the Aug. 24 date of the 2016 SLBM launch.

The test is another sign that Pyongyang is trying to secure a second-strike capability—the ability to respond to a nuclear attack with its own nuclear weapons. The aim would be to protect the regime and perhaps even cause Washington to hesitate in defending Seoul in the event of an attack, for fear of possible North Korean SLBM strikes.

The launch came on the heels of an extravagant display of force the previous week. Pyongyang showed off some of its new weapons and military hardware on Oct. 11, to mark the 76th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party the day before. It’s a common ritual in the insular one-party state, but this year, the format was different. For the first time, new additions to the country’s arsenal were on display at a museum-style exhibition rather than a military parade or other major celebration. 

It appears Pyongyang is trying to instill a greater sense of national pride and patriotism in North Koreans about their country’s military might, while portraying itself to the world as a modern, normal state. Clad in a Western-style suit, the young dictator Kim Jong Un explained in his commemoration speech that the “grand-scale exhibition, a crystallization of our Party’s revolutionary defense policy and its robust viability, is an epoch-making demonstration of our national strength no less significant than a large-scale military parade,” according to state media.

Billed as the “Defense Development Exhibition ‘Self-Defense 2021,’” the event boasted new weaponry that North Korean officials insist are meant for self-defense—to serve as a deterrent against the “hostile policy” of the United States.  On display were an  intercontinental ballistic missile; a new hypersonic glide vehicle, a rail-mobile short-range ballistic missile and a long-range cruise missile, all of which Pyongyang claimed to have successfully tested last month; and a submarine-launched ballistic missile—presumably the one it tested this week—among an array of other military hardware. These weapon systems, if deployed, could directly threaten South Korea, Japan and even the United States.

Clearly, the regime has been checking off Kim’s wish list that he disclosed at the 8th Party Congress in January, which included many of the weapon systems that were on display last week. Even if these weapons have not yet been perfected, the disclosure of their existence, not to mention the regime’s propaganda, provide ample indication of its intent. It is only a matter of time until North Korea acquires the capability to reliably put these advanced weapons to practical use, even if that may seem like a fantasy for now. 

Of course, such technological perfection may not even be necessary for the time being. The ability to arm even a rudimentary hypersonic or ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead would still threaten South Korea and Japan. Even the perception of having that capability would provide Pyongyang with political leverage in future negotiations with Washington, as well as a measure of legitimacy and loyalty at home.

Clearly, the regime has been checking off Kim’s wish list that he disclosed at the 8th Party Congress in January, which included many of the weapon systems that were on display last week.

With the Biden administration continuing its overtures for dialogue, a defense expo achieves the same effect of a show of force without being seen as overtly provocative in the eyes of the international community. There may also be an element of trying to portray itself as a modern and prosperous nation despite North Korea’s economic difficulties amid its self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic and continued effects of international sanctions for its nuclear weapons development. Moreover, calling the event “Self-Defense 2021” suggests there may be more shows to come in future years. Perhaps Pyongyang even envisions inviting foreign buyers and defense industry insiders to its expos in the distant future. 

Ultimately, goose-stepping military parades are reminiscent of backward totalitarian regimes, particularly in the eyes of developed countries in the West, while defense exhibitions depict modern, wealthy states that are also militarily strong. For example, South Korea grew out of its own military parades in the process of becoming a democracy, downsizing or canceling them in the 1990s and eventually replacing them with defense exhibitions and air shows. Seoul’s own biennial defense exhibition kicked off this week.

Seoul, for its part, has also been busy showing off its military prowess in recent months, testing its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, rolling out plans for high-tech weapons development and increasing its military spending. The timing of the two Koreas’ weapons tests has raised concerns about a new arms race on the peninsula. 

However, the reality is that Seoul’s defense ambitions are driven by several complex factors and are not necessarily intended for escalating tensions with the North. Most of its weapons development plans were in place long before President Moon Jae-in took office, though Moon’s government seems to have accelerated a few of them, particularly Seoul’s naval capabilities. More broadly, Moon’s political objective is to meet the necessary conditions to transfer wartime operational control, or OPCON, to South Korea from the United States and persuade U.S. President Joe Biden to actively support Moon’s vision for inter-Korean peace by showing maximum flexibility in its approach to the North. 

Seoul believes that developing more advanced weapons and boosting its military spending would demonstrate its seriousness about deterrence in the face of North Korean nuclear and missile threats, thereby meeting OPCON requirements. One way to indicate high military spending, South Korean government insiders tell me, has been to shorten the time period necessary for some defense acquisition projects in the military’s budget proposals, which in effect increases yearly spending. A successful OPCON transfer would also help Moon achieve his motto of “military sovereignty,” which is in line with South Korean progressives’ ideology of ridding the country of U.S. influence and its reliance on Washington for national security.

Another underlying motivation for Seoul is to create an environment that enables Moon to leave behind a “Korean peace” legacy before his term ends next March. In remarks at the U.N. Generally Assembly last month, Moon reinvigorated his push for a declaration to formally end the Korean War, for which hostilities ceased in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty. To this end, Seoul has been aiming for a summit among the leaders of the four main parties to the conflict—the two Koreas, the U.S. and China—on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February. However, North Korea has rejected Seoul’s proposal as purely symbolic, and Washington rightfully remains wary of signing a war-ending declaration with a state that continues to build up its nuclear weapons in contravention of numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions. 

Still, South Korea remains hopeful, even as North Korea threatens further missile tests and nuclear weapons development. Employing parallel tactics of scorn and flattery, Pyongyang has also taken advantage of Moon’s desperation to secure his legacy by restoring an inter-Korean communication line and dangling hopes for a war-ending declaration and another inter-Korean summit—provided that Seoul works harder to satisfy the Kim regime and break with Washington. 

Moon has met Kim in person three times during his presidency. One last inter-Korean summit would provide Moon with the justification needed to ratify the 2018 inter-Korean summit agreement in the National Assembly, where his ruling Democratic Party holds a supermajority. That would legally bind the next South Korean administration to Moon’s policy of maximum engagement without conditions with the North, which many conservative critics say could jeopardize South Korea’s national security. A victory for Moon’s party in the presidential election next March, which Pyongyang is apparently trying to influence with its latest flattery, would also be a win for North Korea. This is because conservative South Korean governments tend to impose higher bars for inter-Korean engagement and denuclearization, and are more closely aligned with the United States. 

Against the backdrop of these security and political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, the fundamental challenge for the Biden administration is to persuade the Kim regime to come back to the negotiating table and curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. However, Kim has so far rejected the Biden team’s overtures, and the chances to resume diplomacy are further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Pyongyang’s refusal to return to direct talks any time soon and its unwillingness to even receive international humanitarian assistance are apparently due to fears of importing the virus. The traditional method of sanctions enforcement against the North, aimed at halting the flow of funds that finance North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, has also become difficult to maintain due to the country’s self-isolation during the pandemic. 

Still, waiting patiently is not an option, as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues “full steam ahead,” as the International Atomic Energy Agency announced last month. In the near term, countries that are in contact with Pyongyang could help persuade the regime that there are safe methods to receive vaccines and humanitarian aid, as well as to conduct official discussions with U.S. counterparts. The Biden administration should continue with its overtures and consistent messages about meeting without preconditions and harboring no hostile intentions toward North Korea. Meanwhile, Washington and the international community should tighten sanctions against Pyongyang’s cybercrimes and punish third-party entities involved in trade and illicit financial activities with the regime. The exorbitant earnings from such activities have become a lucrative source of financing for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

At the same time, Washington should prepare a strategy for when the pandemic subsides or when North Korea appears ready to engage once more. Challenges still loom because Pyongyang continues to maintain that its preconditions for dialogue include the removal of international sanctions, as well as an end to U.S.-South Korean military drills and criticisms of Pyongyang’s human rights violations—all of which remain nonstarters for the Biden administration. 

Even if diplomacy resumes in earnest, the road ahead will be dotted with landmines. Yet inaction and the absence of bold initiatives toward denuclearization and peace will yield even bigger problems. 

Duyeon Kim is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a columnist for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, based in Seoul. She specializes in the Korean Peninsula, East Asian relations, nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and security regimes.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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