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North Korea’s new weapons, and how they affect Trump’s nuclear deal hopes, explained

“This is an intentional reminder that if diplomacy fails, North Korea will only be stronger and more capable today than it was four years ago,” said one expert.

North Korea Fires “Ballistic Missiles” Off Coast
People watch a TV showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on August 6, 2019, in Seoul.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

It’s been nearly six months since President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met for their failed summit in Vietnam, where they were unable to make progress on a nuclear deal that would have proved a legacy-defining achievement for the American leader.

But the months since have seemingly put that goal out of reach. Kim has shown off no fewer than four new, advanced weapons since the Hanoi meeting in February. In press releases and five missile tests over the past month, Kim has displayed two different short-range ballistic missiles, a multiple-rocket launcher, and a submarine that could potentially shoot nuclear missiles from hidden, underwater positions.

Kim has many reasons to produce the new weaponry, ranging from his anger at military drills between the US and South Korea and the sputtering diplomatic efforts with America, as well as a desire to safeguard his regime.

Trump, meanwhile, has praised Kim during for sending him a “very beautiful letter” last week despite the uptick in tests over the past three weeks — but he shouldn’t be celebrating. The increased pace of tests and revelation of new weapons means his chances of striking a nuclear deal with Pyongyang are slipping, all while North Korea builds weapons that threaten South Korea and Japan — both close US allies that host thousands of US troops.

Which means no matter what Trump says, North Korea has become much more dangerous — not less — since he took office.

“This is an intentional reminder that if diplomacy fails, North Korea will only be stronger and more capable today than it was four years ago,” Lindsey Ford, a former Asia security specialist at the Defense Department, told me.

North Korea’s four new weapons since the Hanoi summit

Pyongyang hasn’t been shy about displaying its most recent hardware during Trump’s presidency. Kim tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in 2017 that, at least in theory, could carry a nuclear bomb all the way to the United States.

But there was a pause throughout all of 2018 while North Korea kick-started its diplomatic talks with South Korea and the US. Weapons tests short of ICBMs started up again earlier this year, though, increasing fears that the diplomatic window may be closing.

North Korea’s display of four new weapons since July has only added to those fears.

1) The KN-23 short-range ballistic missile

In May, North Korea first tested the KN-23 missile, capable of flying up to about 280 miles while carrying a nuclear warhead on top. That puts much of South Korea and Japan in immense danger, as they lie firmly within that striking range.

Ballistic missiles typically fly in a parabolic fashion, much like a baseball after it’s been hit. It’s therefore easier (though still not easy) for missile defenses to intercept a ballistic missile rather than one that moves around because its trajectory can somewhat be anticipated.

But the KN-23 flies lower than most ballistic missiles and has fins that allow it to move, meaning it has a better chance of hitting its target because it can evade countermeasures.

“This is a nightmare for regional missile defenses,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me. What makes the missile even deadlier is that it can be shot from a mobile launcher, which makes predicting when and where it might come from nearly impossible.

North Korea shoots KN-23 short-range ballistic missile from a road-mobile launcher.
The KN-23 short-range ballistic missile. This image is from a July 25, 2019, test.

Kim has tested this projectile four times in 2019, most recently on August 5, and each time the test has been successful. There’s no denying, then, that North Korea could use this weapon to hit US allies South Korea and Japan — and American troops stationed in those countries — with this weapon should a war break out.

2) A submarine that may be able to shoot nuclear missiles

Pyongyang released three images in July showing Kim standing in front of a massive submarine inside a shipyard. Experts said the submarine was large enough that it could likely carry missiles equipped with nuclear bombs, allowing the North Korean leader to order nuclear strikes from unknown underwater locations.

While none of the photos definitively proved the vessel could shoot nuclear-tipped projectiles — they were cropped so you couldn’t see the top part of the submarine where the weapons would go — analysts told me North Korea would probably only be interested in developing a submarine if it had nuclear capability.

Though experts believe the pictured submarine remains an untested, still-in-construction prototype, it shows that North Korea is steadily improving its ability to threaten the US and its allies from harder-to-detect locations.

Which means in the unlikely event that the US and North Korea get into a nuclear war, it’d prove very hard for Washington to destroy the submarine before it could launch nukes at South Korea, Japan, or even the United States.

3) A multiple-rocket launcher system

Two weeks ago, North Korea claimed that it twice tested a new multiple-rocket launcher system, both of which gave Kim “great satisfaction,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

It’s no surprise why: It appears the new system is capable of sending projectiles around 155 miles into South Korea, about 37 miles further than a previous system could launch. This now allows North Korea to strike deeper into its southern neighbor’s territory, putting troops and stationed weapons at greater risk.

It gets even worse: The rockets launched from the system appear to have fins on the nose, indicating that they may actually act more like guided missiles than “dumb” rockets that land without precision. In other words, North Korea has the ability to shoot off tons of missile-like rockets that can almost assuredly hit their target right over the border into South Korea.

That’s bad news for war planners in Seoul and Washington charged with figuring out how they might invade North Korea with minimal damage.

Pyongyang has gone to great lengths to conceal some of the specifics of this new system. The video below, released by North Korean media and obtained by the independent site NK News (which has no connection to Pyongyang) on August 1, shows still images of the test that contain heavily pixelated parts of the weapon. That may indicate it’s not yet completely finished or simply that Kim doesn’t want adversaries to know much about it.

What’s clear, though, is that Kim has modestly upgraded his rocket-launch system to the point that it could prove a potential shift in US-South Korean wartime moves.

4) An unidentified short-range missile

On Sunday, North Korea said it tested a brand new short-range missile, making it the third new type of projectile unveiled in a month. According to state-run media, Kim was there for that test too.

Not much is known about this supposed new weapon yet, though experts note a few important things. First, it takes off from a mobile launcher, making it hard to track before liftoff. Second, it uses solid fuel, which means it takes no time to gas up and thus can be fired faster. And third, it can travel 250 miles or so, just slightly less than the KN-23 can go.

Experts aren’t sure why North Korea needs two types of short-range missiles since they do the same job. One theory is that Kim challenged separate teams to develop a new weapon and they both succeeded, giving him more to use in case of a fight.

Whatever the reason, the outcome of this and other tests show that Trump’s efforts to dismantle Kim’s arsenal have clearly failed. “This is not denuclearizing,” nuclear expert Melissa Hanham tweeted on Sunday, “this is not even close.”

Kim is trying to tell Trump to make a deal with him — or else

North Korea is showing off its military prowess for three clear reasons, experts say.

First, Trump continues to say that he’s fine with Pyongyang launching short-range missiles, as long as it doesn’t set off a nuclear bomb or test a missile that could hit the US. “I have no problem,” Trump told reporters outside the White House on August 1 about the other recent tests. “These are short-range missiles.”

North Korea heard that message loud and clear. “Even the US president made a remark which in effect recognizes the self-defensive rights of a sovereign state, saying that it is a small missile test which a lot of countries do,” Kwon Jong Gun, the head of US affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, wrote in a recent KCNA article.

Second, North Korea is angry at Seoul and Washington. A statement from a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson earlier this month blasted the US and South Korea for holding a long-planned joint military exercise, even though it had been scaled down to lower tensions with Kim’s regime.

“Despite our repeated warnings, the United States and South Korean authorities have finally started the joint military exercise targeting the DPRK,” the spokesperson said. “Its aggressive nature can neither be covered up or whitewashed in any manner.”

This is typical for North Korea. It doesn’t like when the US and South Korea practice military operations together, as Pyongyang views the drills as preparations for war and perhaps the precursor to an invasion.

Third, Kim wants Trump to know that time to make a nuclear deal is running out. The two countries have been at an impasse for months over a core issue: Kim wants Trump to lift sanctions on his country before he gives up some of his weapons, and Trump wants Kim to give up nearly all of his weapons before he lifts the sanctions. As a result, the two sides remain locked in a stalemate.

By showing off new weapons, Kim is partly trying to compel Trump to give North Korea what it wants.

“North Korea has long had the stronger negotiating position,” Mintaro Oba, who worked on Korean issues at the State Department, told me. “North Korea’s pressure campaign is about using time, advancing technology, and exploiting the idiosyncrasies of the US and South Korean positions to simultaneously make North Korea’s nuclear program seem more firmly in place while creating a sense of urgency behind getting a deal to curb the threat.”

However, he notes that “using provocations around the time of exercises to put pressure on the United States and South Korea is a tried-and-true part of North Korea’s playbook,” so it’s not completely indicative that Trump’s nuclear diplomacy is failing.

That may be true, and this could just be the storm before the calm. But if Trump really is to snatch the weapons out of Kim’s hands, he now he has to lunge for more of them.

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