North Korea staged its first military-style parade since Joe Biden became U.S. president, with leader Kim Jong Un presiding over an event where displays of his state’s weaponry were scaled down from previous exhibitions.
There were no ballistic missiles rolled through the streets and national unity was highlighted in the event broadcast Thursday on North Korea’s state television to mark the anniversary of the country’s founding. It took place as the state battles one of its worst food shortages since Kim took power about a decade ago.
Kim didn’t speak but he waived, smiled and gave a thumbs up as thousands of goose-stepping paramilitary and public security forces marched through central Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, fixing their gazes to the balcony where the leader was watching.
The event opened with military marching bands, fireworks, and sky divers soaring through the air with North Korean flags affixed to their ankles. Unlike the last two parades, there were no major weapons systems on display.
Kim is struggling with an economy that has shrunk since he took power about a decade ago, thanks largely to sanctions imposed to punish the country for its nuclear weapons push. North Korea is also facing the most serious food shortage in Kim’s rule and he may have been using the event to help rally support at home.
The fact that North Korea held a parade to celebrate the anniversary of the state’s founding on what is considered a non-major anniversary year, “is unusual and underscores how much the country needed to bring the people together for a celebration and instill a sense of pride in them,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.
“Pyongyang clearly wants to keep its diplomatic options open for now, and that is why it toned down on the parade by making it a homeland security-centered parade rather than a military parade with big weapons,” she said.
Kim was greeted with thunderous applause as he appeared on a balcony overlooking the square in a light-colored, closely tailored suit, looking thinner than he did a few months ago. But the North Korean leader has so far shown no interest in sitting down with the Biden administration, which has said it’s open for discussions and indicated it could offer economic incentives in exchange for disarmament steps.
Kim has warned cadres in recent months to step up measures to protect against the coronavirus. North Korea says it has not confirmed COVID-19 cases — a claim doubted by the U.S., Japan and others — and has refused international shipments of vaccines. The only people wearing masks were a few spectators away from the event among a small group taking photos on their mobile phones.
“It seems like the parade was largely for an internal audience, rather than sending diplomatic messages to Seoul or Washington,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, who has advised the South Korean government. North Korea paraded “less provocative” military units such as reserved-force-like ‘Worker-Peasant Red Guards,’” he added.
The last North Korean military parade came just before Biden was inaugurated in January and showed off the latest developments in quick-strike, solid-fuel missiles that have been developed under Kim’s leadership.
The parades have served as a chilling reminder that Kim’s military might has grown more lethal as nuclear disarmament talks have sputtered. Under Kim, North Korea has been steadily adding to its stockpile of fissile material and increasing its arsenal of missiles that could strike the U.S. and its allies.
At the October 2020 parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, North Korea rolled out what experts said was the state’s largest display of new weaponry under Kim, including what they described as the world’s biggest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. The so-far-untested missile could allow North Korea to pack multiple atomic weapons on a single rocket to attack the U.S., experts said.
Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, made her first public appearance in more than four months as part of the events marking the anniversary, NK News reported. She joined Kim and other officials on a visit to a shrine honoring the state’s former leaders.
Chinese President Xi Jinping showed his support for the longtime ally, sending a message of congratulations to Kim on the anniversary of the government’s founding and expressing confidence in the state’s future development under Kim’s leadership, China’s state television reported.
China is North Korea’s biggest benefactor, for years providing a lifeline that helped keep its neighbor’s struggling economy afloat. The Biden administration has told Beijing that it’s in its own self-interest to get Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.
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