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North Korea may have just displayed new ICBMs, here's what that could mean

  • North Korea revealed what appeared to be new intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade over the weekend.
  • "It's very difficult to discern what's real and what's for show, but they certainly want to convey the impression that they have improved their nuclear capabilities," says Frank Lavin, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

North Korea revealed what appeared to be new intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade over the weekend, but that doesn't necessarily mean the country will use them.

First, it's not clear whether the missiles were real or mock-ups, but experts say the public display was at least Pyongyang's latest move in a game of nuclear brinkmanship with the U.S.

"It's very difficult to discern what's real and what's for show, but they certainly want to convey the impression that they have improved their nuclear capabilities," Frank Lavin, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, told CNBC. The display was a message of military might after Washington strategically deployed an aircraft carrier group, the USS Carl Vinson, closer to the Korean peninsula, he continued.

The reclusive nation's military parade was aimed to celebrate the so-called Day of the Sun on April 15, which marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of founding father Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

"Everyone has always underestimated what North Korea can do. ... This was North Korea's way of saying it can do more than expected," said Gabriel Stein, managing director of developed markets research at 4CAST-RGE.

The country has never tested an ICBM before.

"In some sense, this is a defensive crouch," said Stephan Haggard, Korea-Pacific Program director at the University of California San Diego, referring to the apparent ICBM display. Kim is basically saying Pyongyang will use weapons if under attack, Haggard said.

Despite North Korea's reputation for being unpredictable, Haggard believes Kim is actually cautious.

If Kim is test firing missiles or conducting a nuclear test on North Korean soil, he's not moving across the DMZ and directly threatening other countries, Haggard said. If North Korea had undertaken a nuclear test on April 15, that would have been way more provocative and would have likely elicited an American military response, he added.

Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading 'Pukkuksong' during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017.
Sue-Lin Wong | Reuters
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading 'Pukkuksong' during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017.

'No US military action'

A day after the military parade, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from its soil on Sunday, which blew up almost immediately, according to U.S. Pacific Command. While this was widely interpreted as the latest escalation in the U.S.-North Korean standoff, Washington is expected to concentrate on diplomacy and economic tools as Vice President Mike Pence holds talks in Asia.

As Pence tours South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia this month, strategists widely agreed the vice president will be looking to reaffirm America's commitment to the region's stability.

Despite President Donald Trump's earlier talk of unilateral solutions, Washington put out a measured response to Sunday's failed launch: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told ABC that Trump was not currently considering military action.

By pursuing a diplomatic track with North Korea, the U.S. is following China's preferences, said Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Beijing wants to see negotiations, so Washington needs to show it is pursuing the diplomatic option to secure Beijing's help, he said.

The world's second-largest economy is seen as a crucial player in curbing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions due to its economic influence. Last week, data revealed Chinese imports from the rogue nation rose 18.4 percent in yuan value from a year ago during the first quarter of 2017.

"If there's military tracks to be taken, I hope it's a result of diplomacy and not in spite of it," said Hill.

Correction: This story was revised to correct the spelling of Stephan Haggard's first name.