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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea bolsters arsenal with 'world's strongest weapon'

Kim Jong Un seeks to raise leverage for possible talks with Biden team

North Korea shows off a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade to mark the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Thursday.   © KCNA/Jiji

SEOUL -- North Korea on Thursday displayed what it called "the world's strongest weapon" at a grand military parade in Pyongyang to mark the close of the isolated nation's Eighth Party Congress.

The unveiling of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) a week before the inauguration of Joe Biden as U.S. president shows North Korea is adopting an assertive posture toward the incoming administration.

The parade, made public by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Friday, included other additions to the country's ever-growing arsenal such as short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and rockets. KCNA described the rockets as possessing "powerful striking capability for thoroughly annihilating enemies in a preemptive way outside the territory."

The parade, held on Thursday night, was the country's second in three months. The event in October to commemorate the Workers' Party's 75th Anniversary also showcased an array of new weaponry, including what is believed to be the biggest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the world.

Although no ICBMs were shown off on Thursday's, North Korea still managed to convey a strong message to the world.

"It seems that by making the parade salient, North Korea wants to grab the attention of the Biden administration and raise the bargaining leverage for the near future negotiations with the United States," Jung Kim, assistant professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told Nikkei Asia.

But despite the parade and talk of expanding its nuclear force, Pyongyang seems to be leaving at least some room open for talks with Washington. One KCNA report detailing policy decisions made at the congress stated that North Korea "would approach the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill in the future, too."

Gianluca Spezza, senior research fellow at the DPRK research center of KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, said Pyongyang may be hoping its brinkmanship leads to resumed to talks with Washington.

"They know the [U.S.] is in disarray at the moment. This means that any U.S. president -- not just Biden -- could immediately benefit from a diplomatic success with North Korea," Spezza said.

The ball appears now to be in Biden's court. But with the incoming president's diplomatic approach differing to Trump, some analysts are skeptical as to whether Kim's recent moves will result in Biden prioritizing North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes troops during Thursday's military parade.   © KCNA/EPA/Jiji

Jeffrey Robertson, associate professor at Yonsei University, said the incoming administration is unlikely to pay significant attention to North Korea right off the bat.

"The Biden Administration will have its hands full for the first six months," he said, pointing to an array of domestic issues. "Yet, here lies the risk. Escalation could force the Biden Administration into crisis diplomacy which would impede and restrict efforts to secure long-term goals."

Kim at the University of North Korean Studies said that if North Korea maintains its provocative stance, it "might turn out to be counter-productive in that the Biden administration would see this in terms of unacceptable provocation rather than imminent threats."

Should Biden choose to open talks with North Korea, some analysts remain skeptical of the true potential to deliver long-term results.

"I am skeptical that classic "tit for tat" negotiation schemes, say, disarmament for some unspecified economic package, would work, if the intrinsic nature of the regime doesn't change," Spezza said. "Economic assistance cannot be successfully grafted onto a dysfunctional socioeconomic system."

Any successful long-term deal with North Korea is therefore not only contingent on securing U.S. cooperation but also on the willingness of the North Korean regime to adapt its economic system and gradually begin opening up -- which seems unlikely, for now at least.

Soldiers march in Thursday's military parade.   © KCNA/EPA/Jiji

North Korea's continued military expansionism also has consequences for its relations with its neighbor, South Korea. Despite the Moon administration's many efforts at improving inter-Korean ties and increasing cross-border cooperation, Pyongyang's response has been cold and disinterested.

At the party congress, Kim Jong Un warned that "if the south Korean authorities continue to label our action 'provocation' with a double-dealing and biased mindset, we have no other option but to deal with them in a different way. On Wednesday, Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, called South Koreans "idiots" for closely monitoring news of a military parade.

Despite the harsh comments, experts don't expect such rhetoric to have much effect on South Korea's policy decisions.

"There is not a government official or politician in Seoul who is not used to Pyongyang's undiplomatic behavior," Robertson said. "This will have no effect on South Korea's aims."

With only one year left in office and having invested so much political capital into his North Korea policy, it will be hard for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to switch tactics now.

"For the Moon government, there are no other policy options except for continuing its conciliatory policy toward North Korea," Jung Kim said. Seoul does not currently have any bargaining leverage to induce Pyongyang back to inter-Korean dialogue," he said, adding it is "unlikely" the two Koreas will improve relations anytime soon.

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