Seoul – Nuclear-armed North Korea is expected to parade its latest and most advanced weapons through the streets of Pyongyang on Saturday, as the coronavirus-barricaded country celebrates the 75th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s ruling party.
South Korea’s unification minister told parliament on Thursday that a “large-scale parade” was anticipated, and satellite imagery on the respected 38North website has also suggested the cavalcade could be huge.
The anniversary comes during a difficult year for North Korea as the coronavirus pandemic and recent storms add pressure to the heavily sanctioned country.
Pyongyang closed its borders eight months ago to try to protect itself from the virus — which first emerged in neighbouring China — and has still to confirm a single case of infection.
Last month, troops from the North shot dead a South Korean fisheries official who had drifted into its waters, apparently as a precaution against the disease, prompting fury in Seoul and a rare apology from Kim.
Nevertheless, Saturday is expected to see thousands of goose-stepping soldiers packed into Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, named for North Korea’s founder, under the gaze of his grandson, the third member of the family to rule the country.
A procession of progressively larger armoured vehicles and tanks is likely to follow, culminating with whatever missiles Pyongyang wants to put on show.
The North is widely believed to have continued to develop its arsenal — which it says it needs to protect itself from a US invasion — throughout nuclear negotiations with Washington, deadlocked since the collapse of a summit in Hanoi in February last year.
Now analysts expect a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland to appear — maybe even one with multiple re-entry vehicle capabilities that could allow it to evade US defence systems.
The anniversary of the Workers’ Party means North Korea “has a political and strategic need to do something bigger”, said Sung-yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University in the United States.
Showcasing its most advanced weapons “will signal a big step forward in Pyongyang’s credible threat capabilities”, he said.
But unlike on many previous occasions, no international media have been allowed in to watch the parade, and with many foreign embassies in Pyongyang closing their doors in the face of coronavirus restrictions, few outside observers will be present.
It is not clear whether state broadcaster KCTV will air the event live — some past parades have not appeared on television until the following day.
But the South’s government has detected signs that Kim is to give a speech at the parade, Yonhap News Agency reported Friday citing unnamed sources.
– Masks and missiles? –
At the end of December, Kim threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon”, but analysts say Pyongyang will still tread carefully to avoid jeopardising its chances with Washington ahead of next month’s presidential elections.
Showing off its strategic weapons in a military parade “would be consistent with what Kim Jong Un promised”, while “not provoking the US as much as a test-launch of a strategic weapon”, said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee.
The messaging of the parade “will be heavily domestic — on party accomplishments, unity around the leader, and improving the economy before the Eighth Party Congress”, she added, referring to a meeting of the Workers’ Party due to take place in January.
But Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest warned that with thousands of people involved, it could turn into a “deadly superspreader-like event” unless “extreme precautions” were used.
The impoverished nation’s crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak, and he added that such protective measures seemed “pretty unlikely”.
“Clearly masks and missiles don’t mix.”