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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Jon Herskovitz and Shinhye Kang

Kim Jong Un puts new missile, and a potential heir, on parade

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un displayed his latest assets to protect his reign: quick-strike missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead to the U.S. and a preteen daughter who ensures his family’s continuous rule over the dynasty forged in the Cold War.

Images provided by official state media on Thursday of a military parade in Pyongyang showed the regime’s biggest single display of intercontinental ballistic missiles during Kim’s decade in power. These included 11 of its Hwasong-17 rockets, which experts say is the world’s biggest road-worthy ICBM, and five cannisters for an apparent new solid-fuel ICBM.

The display of the weapons and his daughter, thought to be named Ju Ae and about 10 years old, sent a message to the world that North Korea won’t be bargaining away its nuclear arsenal any time soon. They also tell his people the high cost of the atomic weapons program to the economy is worth it because it protects the next generation of North Koreans.

“Kim Ju Ae’s appearances at these high-profile events suggests her father, Kim Jong Un, seeks to cement the immutability between his country’s nuclear weapons program and his family’s identity and survivability,” said Soo Kim, a former CIA Korea analyst who is now a policy practice area lead at U.S.-based management consulting firm LMI.

All of the ICBMs were on mobile launchers, and the most of their type ever displayed at a parade. This increases his chances of a strike that could overwhelm U.S. missile defenses. The solid-propellant missiles would be easier to move and quicker to fire than the state’s current arsenal of liquid-fuel ICBMs, giving Washington less time to shoot one down.

“The use of a canister strongly implies a solid-fuel missile, given these are produced pre-fueled with less access required,” said Joseph Dempsey, a Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Of course, being in a canister we do not see the actual missile associated with this system and for parade purposes it is likely empty anyway.”

North Korea has been working on solid-fuel missiles for years and in recent months tested new engines, which could be used in longer-range weapons designed to strike U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam, as well as an ICBM to hit the American mainland.

Pyongyang also appears to be working on silo-based ballistic missiles and missiles that can carry multiple warheads, known as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRV, said Joost Oliemans, a weapons expert who co-authored the book The Armed Forces of North Korea.

“Perhaps more importantly, there’s little doubt North Korea has been investing heavily in MIRV and decoy technologies, which can cause some serious troubles for the U.S.’s Ground-Based Midcourse Defense,” he said.

The Hwasong-17 is designed to carry multiple warheads and North Korea said it was successfully tested last year. Kim’s daughter made her debut in state media in November at one of these tests, when she held her father’s hand and strolled by an ICBM before a launch.

Since then, she has featured prominently in state media. At the parade, she entered on her father’s arm as soldiers applauded. She was then perched in a seat of honor to see festivities that included skydivers in neon lights descending to the grounds and thousands of goose-stepping military personnel shouting praise to Kim.

State media now calls her the “respected daughter” and the appearances are stoking speculation she’s being groomed for a leadership role. In 2010, Kim Jong Un, then 26, made his public debut at a military parade with his father, Kim Jong Il.

His attendance that day, plus the fact he was made a four-star general and given prominent positions in the ruling party a few weeks earlier, were signs he was the heir apparent.

It is highly unlikely Kim Jong Un would install his elementary school-age daughter in a government role now, a move that would all but assure her of official status. Given Kim’s relatively young age of 39, he could be in power for decades. Still, he’s overweight and a heavy smoker who has battled health problems, so succession is a subject of concern.

Rachel Minyoung Lee, regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network, said the ways state media has referred to Ju Ae over time are noteworthy, but it’s too early to read anything about succession into it.

“At this point I remain skeptical, just because succession is a brutal power game, one that requires a lot of balancing act and therefore cautious handling in North Korean media,” said Lee, who added Ju Ae’s appearances have a powerful propaganda effect on several fronts, including reinforcing the importance of weapons development and production for the security of future generations.

Ju Ae’s prominence is only the latest example of Kim’s willingness to share the spotlight with prominent women. Besides frequent appearances with his wife, he has made his sister, Kim Yo Jong, the face of the regime’s dealings with the U.S. and South Korea. He also recently made Choe Son Hui the country’s first female foreign minister.

Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Seoul, said the new role given to the leader’s daughter may be part of a powerplay to keep his in check.

“Kim Yo Jong had been featured publicly for a while but seems to have faded in the background most recently with his daughter’s public debut,” she said.

Since taking power a decade ago, Kim Jong Un has defied predictions that his regime would falter.

North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear strike has grown to the point there are calls to declare Pyongyang a nuclear weapons state. The change would lead to a revamp of a decades-old U.S. policy aimed at preventing that from happening, while seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible end of its atomic arsenal.

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