North Korea's recently-concluded Party Congress and celebration proved to be a confirmation exercise, in more ways than one.
As expected, the rare Party session (the first of its type in 30 years) became a coronation, of sorts, for Kim Jong un, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong il. The elder Kim used the Party Congress to anoint Kim Jong un as his successor, and continue the world's only hereditary Communist dictatorship.
As noted in previous posts, Kim Jong un's ability to consolidate and hold power--after his father's death--is anything but certain. The younger Kim has virtually no leadership or military experience, his recent "promotion" to four-star general notwithstanding. Attempting to improve prospects for a successful transition, Kim Jong il has granted more power to his sister, brother-in-law, and a few top generals, hoping they will be the "power behind the throne" until his son is ready to rule.
It's a dicey gamble, at best. Kim Jong un will inherit a country in far worse economic condition than his father did 16 years ago. Thousands of North Koreans have fled to neighboring China, risking prison (and a possible death sentence) if they are caught and returned to the DPRK. Those who remain face perpetual shortages of food, electricity, medicine and other staples of modern life. More than a million North Korean peasants died during a famine in the late 1990s, and many more are at risk for a similar fate.
Meanwhile, there are rare, public signs of discontent inside the hermit kingdom. Anti-regime graffiti appeared in Pyongyang a few months ago; such activity was unthinkable just a few years ago. Anyone bold enough to protest against the Kim dynasty faced a long stretch in a labor camp--or worse. The graffiti suggests that public dissatisfaction with the government is growing and opponents are now bold enough to express those thoughts in public. The designation of a 27-year-old neophyte as Kim Jong-il's successor may stoke anti-regime sentiment, particularly if support from the DPRK military begins to waver.
While many observers remain focused on the political machinations in North Korea, the Party Congress (and attendant celebrations) also yielded another, important confirmation. After years of media speculation and rumor, Pyongyang unveiled its first intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), the RSM-25 "Musudan."
At least two of the missiles, based on the Russian SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile, appeared in yesterday's military parade. They can be seen at the :49 mark in this YouTube video (H/T Joshua Pollack at ArmsControlWonk), and a second time, 1:12 into the footage. The missiles displayed in Pyongyang bear an uncanny resemblance to the Russian missile, designated the R-27.
Press reports about North Korea's acquisition of the Musudan first surfaced in late 2007, but the missile was kept under wraps until yesterday. With a range of 1,860-3,100 miles, the new missile can hit targets as far away as Japan and Guam. While the system is decidedly old (Russia retired its version of the liquid-fueled SLBM 20 years ago), the Musudan represents a technological leap for the DPRK.
Not only does the missile carry a heavier payload than the longer-ranged Tapeodong-1/2 series, it is also more reliable. During its long career with the Soviet and Russian militaries, the R-27 achieved an overall success rate of 93%, during the course of more than 100 test launches. By comparison, the TD-1/TD-2 programs have been plagued by a series of high-profile failures, the most recent in April of last year.
Ironically, the Musudan airframe plays an important role in that less-successful program. Intelligence reporting indicates the Musudan serves as the first stage of the TD-2, while elements of other missiles are used in the second and third stages. Analysis of the launch failures indicate the Musudan performed flawlessly, while problems in the upper stages ultimately doomed high-profile missiles tests in 2006 and 2009. If these failures continue, North Korea may opt to integrate more Musudan technology in its long-range missiles.
More importantly, the intermediate-range system provides a proven nuclear delivery capability. The original Russian version was designed to deliver 1-3 nuclear warheads against targets up to 3,000 miles away. Moscow says the technology sold to Pyongyang did not include nuclear delivery capabilities, but those claims are dubious, at best.
Why should we doubt Russia's version of the technology transfer? Well, North Korea built its Musudans with help from Russian engineers who are more than familiar with its nuclear delivery system. With their help, it should be fairly easy for the DPRK to build a nuclear-capable Musudan in relatively short order. That will put more U.S./Allied targets in the Far East in range of North Korean nukes.
Kim Jong un's long-term survival prospects remain marginal (at best), but the Musudan's appearance provides an important reminder. North Korea may be a failed state, but it's a failed state with nuclear weapons. And, its ability to deliver those weapons is steadily improving, thanks to technology transfers that give Pyongyang access to more capable systems like the SS-N-6.
ADDENDUM: While North Korea has never tested the missile, that didn't prevent the Musudan's export to Iran. Various reports suggest Tehran has acquired at least a dozen IRBMs, which would be fired from mobile launchers. North Korea also uses mobile launchers for its Musudans, making them more survivable--and difficult to target.