By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea displayed what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at a parade on Thursday night, state media reported, capping more than a week of political meetings with a show of military might.
Clad in a leather coat and fur hat, leader Kim Jong Un smiled and waved as he oversaw the parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, photos by state media showed.
The parade featured rows of marching soldiers, as well as a range of military hardware including tanks and rocket launchers.
At the end, a number of what analysts said appeared to be new variants of short-range ballistic missiles and SLBMs rolled into the square on trucks.
"The world's most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missiles, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces," news agency KCNA reported.
North Korea has test-fired several SLBMs from under water, and analysts say it is seeking to develop an operational submarine to carry the missiles.
Photos released by state media showed the SLBM was labelled Pukguksong-5, potentially marking an upgrade over the Pukguksong-4 that was unveiled at a larger military parade in October.
"The new missile definitely looks longer," Michael Duitsman, a researcher at the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said on Twitter.
Unlike that October parade, Thursday's event did not showcase North Korea's largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are believed to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Defense declined to comment. South Korea's government did not immediately comment on the parade, but the foreign ministry said its top nuclear envoy had discussed North Korea's recent moves with his counterpart in the United States.
The parade in itself was not intended to be a provocation but was a worrying sign of Pyongyang's priorities, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
"The economy is severely strained from pandemic border closures, policy mismanagement and international sanctions," he said. "Despite or perhaps because of this, Kim Jong Un feels the need to devote scarce resources to another political-military display."
North Korean officials have been meeting in Pyongyang for the first party congress since 2016. Kim announced a new five-year plan to revitalise the economy in the face of crises caused by anti-coronavirus measures, natural disasters, and international sanctions over the nuclear and missile programmes.
Suh Kune-yull, a professor at Seoul National University who specializes in nuclear technology, said the range and the upgrade of the SLBM is not as important as the message Kim is trying to send by staging the congress and the military parade right before U.S. president-elect Joe Biden takes office.
“What’s more important is to note that this is the harbinger of resuming nuclear tests that were put off," he said. "The North is setting the stage before the Biden administration takes office."
North Korea has not tested a nuclear bomb or fired its longest-range ICBMs since 2017, but Kim has signalled he no longer feels bound by that self-imposed moratorium after denuclearisation talks with U.S. President Donald Trump stalled.
On Wednesday, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un and a member of the ruling party's Central Committee, called South Korea "top-class idiots" for monitoring signs of a parade in Pyongyang earlier this week.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Raju Gopalakrishnan)