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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea unlikely to fire new 'monster' ICBM before US election

Pyongyang inclined to wait with Washington distracted by pandemic and campaign

Kim gave an address during the event, in which the new weapon was unveiled.   (KCNA/Kyodo)

TOKYO -- North Korea revealed Saturday what appears to be its biggest intercontinental ballistic missile to date, but analysts say the isolated nation is unlikely to test the device any time soon.

At a parade overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, the country unveiled an ICBM carried on a mobile erector launcher with 22 wheels, bigger than the vehicle that transported the Hwasong-15 missile -- North Korea's most powerful tested weapon -- in a February 2018 parade.

But with the U.S. distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Nov. 3 presidential election, Pyongyang watchers say they don't see any reason for the Kim regime to provoke the old enemy until after the next American leader is chosen.

"The new ICBM is a monster. Much larger than the Hwasong-15," Melissa Hanham, deputy director of Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network, told Nikkei Asia. "But historically they show off design models long before testing."

The Hwasong-15's estimated range is 13,000 km, making it capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland.

"Since the Hwasong-15 can already target anywhere in the U.S. mainland, this missile is about carrying more payload the same distance," Hanham added. "This likely means they are developing this missile to be able to deliver multiple nuclear warheads to the U.S."

The show of strength comes amid strained relations with Seoul, but also during a period of relative calm with Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump has refrained from attacking Kim in recent months, and in September retweeted a BBC story on the North Korean leader apologizing to South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the killing of a fisheries official from the South in its waters last month.

In 2017, North Korea test-fired dozens of missiles, including an ICBM that Kim claimed could strike anywhere in the U.S.

Even though denuclearization talks are at deadlock with Washington and Seoul, the coming election in the U.S. is not necessarily grounds for a fresh provocation. Indeed, in a speech at the parade, Kim promised to boost military power, but said the country would not use it unless it was threatened.

"The Trump administration is distracted and disinterested in North Korea right now. The political value of testing after the election is greater," Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Nikkei. "Parades don't necessarily portend launches. It's possible they may return to testing but it's not clear the pre-U.S. election payoff will be great."

"The parade," Panda said, "reminds the U.S. and the outside world that North Korea continues to be able to modernize and grow its military capabilities, seemingly unencumbered by sanctions."

Duyeon Kim, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, said the size of the ICBM pointed to North Korea's intent to perfect a much bigger missile that can more easily reach the U.S. mainland.

But, she added, "Kim's speech was tame, low key, and seemed to almost deliberately avoid provoking Trump before the election, while achieving domestic aims to strengthen unity.

"Still, the military parade spoke volumes. It showcased a lot of weapons -- new ones, wide variety, and emphasized capability -- that can target South Korea, are maneuverable, and difficult for the U.S. to preemptively strike and intercept."

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