North Korea’s recent military parade signalled its nuclear deterrence capabilities, writes David McDonough. How the US will likely respond could provide some possible opportunities for Canada, including on missile defence and cyber.
By David McDonough, April 18, 2017
North Korea surprised observers with its Day of the Sun celebration on Saturday, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founder Kim Il Sun.
Many had expected (and feared) a nuclear test, although one may still take place. Satellite photographs shows that an underground nuclear test site is fully prepared. But, for now, Pyongyang had instead opted for a military parade showcasing the Hermit Kingdom’s hardware and a (failed) missile test the very next day. Washington, in turn, seems intent to disrupt any future missile launches, whether through non-kinetic cyber measures or possibly interception – a possibility that could raise questions on Canada’s decision to refrain from cooperating on ballistic missile defence (BMD).
It might be tempting to conclude North Korea was therefore deterred from testing its nuclear capabilities. The Trump administration had repeatedly warned Pyongyang about engaging in provocations and recently settled for a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement,” with some even reporting plans for a possible pre-emptive strike to forestall a nuclear test.
The US also took steps to ramp up military assets in the region, including Marine Corps’ F-35Bs to Japan and nuclear-capable B-52s and the initial elements of the theatre-based BMD system THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) to South Korea, as well as an announcement that a carrier strike group consisting of the USS Carl Vinson and several guided-missile destroyers and cruisers is being diverted to the Sea of Japan.
One can also add the recent demonstration of US strike capabilities, with its cruise missile attack on Syria to re-establish deterrence following Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the use of its largest non-nuclear bomb, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), in Afghanistan. Notably, MOAB (alongside the Massive Ordnance Penetrator or MOP) would likely be required to take out North Korean nuclear and missile sites.
North Korea has already completed five nuclear tests over two successive administrations, while steadily accelerating its number of ballistic missile launches – and some seemingly more like practice for nuclear strikes than tests per se.
That being said, one should be very wary of concluding that North Korea was deterred. After all, North Korea has already completed five nuclear tests over two successive administrations, while steadily accelerating its number of ballistic missile launches – and some seemingly more like practice for nuclear strikes than tests per se. The most recent test on Sunday may have fizzled, possibly from an American cyber attack during the launch itself or when the missile was manufactured. But the fact that it even took place is telling.
Pyongyang has been especially willing to raise the stakes when confronted with pressure. Its reaction to increased UN sanctions in 2013 was telling – restarting its reactor and processing facility at Yongbyon and threatening pre-emptive attacks against its enemies, among other things. And the Obama administration’s response was not necessarily all that passive, given its decision to deploy additional ground-based interceptors (GBIs) to Fort Greeley, Alaska and undertake cyber and electronic attacks (apparently continued under Obama’s successor) to disrupt North Korea’s missile program.
North Korea is also no Syria. The US-led coalition is already involved in air operations against ISIS in Syria, and both Israel in 2007 (against a suspected nuclear reactor) and now the United States have freely attacked targets of the Assad regime. The same cannot be said with North Korea, which has never experienced such direct action in several decades and is armed with enough artillery and rockets to saturate swaths of South Korea, including Seoul, as well as sufficient plutonium for up to 30 nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s military parade also gave it an opportunity to showcase some of its military hardware, particularly its ballistic missiles – in that sense, the parade represented an attempt at nuclear signalling of its own deterrent capabilities.
Importantly, North Korea’s military parade also gave it an opportunity to showcase some of its military hardware, particularly its ballistic missiles – in that sense, the parade represented an attempt at nuclear signalling of its own deterrent capabilities.
For one, it unveiled its sea-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile, the KN-11, expected to be deployed on its sole submarine that could be used to evade THAAD’s forward-looking radar, and the land-launched version, the KN-15, most recently tested in February 2017. The KN-15 was fully enclosed (e.g., canisterized), solid-fueled, and mounted on tracked transporter erector launchers (TELs), allowing it to be mobile, quickly launched, and potentially deployable on North Korea’s extensive non-paved roads. Together, they give North Korea a potential second-strike capability against US bases in South Korea and Japan, allowing Pyongyang to retaliate even after a US pre-emptive and/or disarming strike.
The intermediate-range Musudan, known as the “Guam-killer” given its potential to strike US forces in Guam, was showcased at the parade. Also on display was what looked like either a shorter variant, missing its third-stage, of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the KN-08, or alternatively a longer version of its Musudan missile.
Another missile had fins on the nose cone, indicating possible work on maneuverable warhead technology for terminal guidance to evade BMD interception. This missile could also potentially be the mysterious KN-17, a new missile designation that US officials now think was tested on Sunday. Of note, the KN-17 is meant to target ships, which would represent an important new development for North Korea, given that only China is believed to have developed an anti-ship ballistic missile.
More worrisome were two new ICBMs – or at least ICBM-sized canisters deployed on wheeled TELs. South Korean observers seem to think one is likely the KN-14, a longer, fully intercontinental-range variant of the KN-08, although others thought it was the full three-stage version of the KN-08 itself. The second ICBM-sized canister remains a mystery, but it does at least resemble the Russian Topol missile. Much is unknown about these two, not least whether they represent either functioning missile systems or missiles under development?
North Korea could be at the very cusp of developing an ICBM that could potentially reach much of the continental United States – with the larger ICBM canisters perhaps indicating further ambitions for multiple warheads or a thermonuclear device.
What is known, however, is that Kim Jong Un has shown a growing fixation to expand the North’s ballistic missile arsenal. Indeed, North Korea could be at the very cusp of developing an ICBM that could potentially reach much of the continental United States – with the larger ICBM canisters perhaps indicating further ambitions for multiple warheads or a thermonuclear device.
Importantly, by revealing such missile capabilities now, Pyongyang has provided a reminder of its own deterrent to the US, possibly paving the way for a further nuclear test and/or ballistic missile launches later in the year.
In response, the US will likely further stiffen sanctions and deploy further assets to the region, such as a second THAAD system to South Korea, more Aegis BMD ships to defend against intermediate-range strikes, and possibly additional GBIs in Alaska against intercontinental threats. BMD could at least help negate the coercive leverage provided by North Korea’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, while offering a modicum of protection in the event of deterrence failure.
The US will likely also be increasingly willing to undertake more direct action to sabotage the North Korean program. But it will likely take the form of either cyber-attacks to disrupt missile launches or even an intercept using the Aegis BMD system, such as from the carrier strike group as it moves into position next week. Of course, the North Korean reaction to such denial measures is equally uncertain.
Finally, what does all this mean for Canada? The government has rarely been at the forefront when it comes to dealing with North Korea. In some respects, Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent loss of words in describing Kim Jong Un seems indicative of this fact, combining as it does disgust with incoherence.
Ottawa could finally reverse the previous Liberal decision to refuse participation in the US BMD system for North America.
Yet the current situation provides opportunities. First, Ottawa could finally reverse the previous Liberal decision to refuse participation in the US BMD system for North America – a decision that has become increasingly anachronistic, given BMD’s embrace by key allies and partners, including NATO itself.
Such a move might not entail automatic participation, as it remains to be seen what benefit the US would receive for accommodating Canada’s participation. Some sort of quid pro quo may be required, whether financial support or in-kind contribution (e.g., use of territory, space assets). But, at the very least, Canada could get some answers as to the cost of participation, reassure Washington that it takes continental defence seriously – and if the cost is not prohibitive, gain some input in the BMD interception process that could help protect its own population centres.
Second, to deal with North Korea, the US will be increasingly reliant on Aegis BMD, consisting of a growing number of US guided-missile destroyers and cruiser alongside those of key allies, not least South Korea and Japan. Yet such sea-based assets remain relatively few in number. This shortage provides another opportunity for Canada to play an important role in BMD – by ensuring that at least a few of its next generation warship, the Canadian Surface Combatant, can participate in integrated air and missile defence (IAMD), in terms of radar and/or weapon systems. Such a ship could, in turn, provide a valued capability in the event it is forward deployed alongside the US 7th Fleet in the Indo-Pacific.
Lastly, given the increasing role of cyber as a means of dealing with North Korea, Canada should further explore the possible value of strengthening its own offensive cyber capabilities. Early indications are that the Department of National Defence is doing just that, with documents indicating a need for Cyber Operators capable of cyber defence and attack – and the upcoming mission in Latvia involving the deployment of “cyber-warriors.” The consequences of such activities still need to be further explored, but the time may have finally come for such a discussion.
David McDonough is Deputy Editor at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a Research Fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development.