But five years later, as the country appears to be preparing for another such display, things seem a lot more serious.
North Korea is expected to mark the birthday of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday with a military parade.
Markus Schiller, a weapons expert with ST Analytics, said that parades “always involve mock-ups.”
“No nation in the world develops missiles and shows the real thing during a parade, it’s just too dangerous,” he said. “If anything happens, it blows up, right next to the ‘Dear Leader’.”
The missiles on display demonstrated inconsistent designs and many flaws that indicated they were “more show than real threat,” the pair wrote. In particular they were skeptical of a purported intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
“We were quite surprised to see a missile of that size,” Schiller said. “What we had seen until then was about one quarter of the size, suddenly they’re showing an ICBM.”
He warned against taking anything the North Koreans display at face value: “Whenever they’ve shown anything, in almost every case they’ve been lying.”
Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s off-and-on nuclear program has progressed significantly.
“I think a lot of people would have scoffed at the idea that a country of threadbare means like North Korea would be able to test (submarine-launched ballistic missiles),” he said.
But Schiller said there was still room for a great deal of skepticism.
“If you just look at what they showed on TV and in photos, it looks impressive,” he said. “But from an engineering and project management approach, a lot of mistakes have been done in the past year.”
What to look for
One problem with the North Korean weapon program that’s likely to be on display at this weekend’s parade, Schiller said, is its apparently sprawling size.
Previously, mock-ups of ostensibly the same missile — such as the KN-08, which was rolled out in 2012 and 2015 — “looked very different,” Schiller said. “That would never happen if there is a frozen missile design, you know what the missile should look like.”
And yet having several missiles for the same purpose is a characteristic of the North Korean weapons program.
“They have 15 different missiles beyond a range of 300 kilometers,” Schiller said. The research and development required to produce such an arsenal, rather than depending on one fixed design, would be huge.
He compared the North Korean program with that of Iran: “Iran has a very sensible, strategically defensible program. They put a policy in place, and develop their missiles to meet that requirement.”
Many of Pyongyang’s missiles are based on Soviet or Chinese designs. The Musudan, one of the most in-house programs, is also perhaps the country’s least successful.
“The Musudan is the only one that doesn’t work,” Schiller said. “All the other missiles work perfectly so what’s the reason for that?”
He suggested that other designs may have been bought by Kim Jong Un’s regime, or those of his predecessors, thus exaggerating the capabilities of the North Korean weapons program.
“It’s a long, long time, it’s a long road (to an ICBM), things always take a lot longer than expected,” Schiller said.