PYONGYANG – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared Saturday that his country was ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States as he spoke at a lavish military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the North’s ruling party and trumpet his third-generation leadership.
The parade, which featured thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and a display of some of North Korea’s military arsenal, kicked off one of the North’s biggest celebrations ever — an attention-getting event that is the government’s way of showing the world and its own people that the Kim dynasty is firmly in control and that its military is a force to be reckoned with.
Kim, clad in black, walked down a red carpet and saluted his honor guard. He then walked up to a podium and waved to the troops taking part in the parade in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.
Visiting Chinese official Liu Yunshan stood to Kim’s left, clapping, with senior North Korean officials on Kim’s right. Kim smiled as he spoke with Liu through a translator.
Kim then delivered a speech in which he said North Korea would stand up to the U.S., issuing the type of fiery rhetoric that is commonly used by the North. “Our revolutionary force is ready to respond to any kind of war the American imperialists want,” said Kim, whose speech was interrupted by applause several times.
“Through the line of ‘songun’ (military-first) politics, our Korean People’s Army has become the strongest revolutionary force and our country has become an impenetrable fortress and a global military power,” he said.
However, Kim made no direct mention of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, possibly because they have strained ties with China.
In the weeks leading up to the anniversary, North Korean officials had repeatedly suggested that they were prepared to fire a long-range rocket, seen by other countries as a pretext for testing ballistic missile technology that is in violation of U.N. resolutions.
Analysts abroad were watching the display of weaponry very closely, particularly North Korea’s growing fleet of drone aircraft and long-range missiles.
The guest list was less impressive. No world leaders attended. Key ally China sent Liu, a senior Communist Party official — not its head of state or even its vice premier.
But the normally isolated and quiet North Korean capital has been flooded by tourists, international media and delegations ranging from ethnic Koreans living abroad to obscure Russian and Mongolian groups dedicated to studying North Korea’s political ideas.
As the clock struck midnight Friday, Kim marked the anniversary by paying respect to both his late father and grandfather at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
For the finale, a stage was set up on a river running through Pyongyang for a late-night concert featuring North Korea’s most popular musical group, the all-female Moranbong Band. Tickets for foreigners hoping to attend were going for €100 ($114) a pop.
On Friday, Kim met with the Chinese delegation led by Liu, the Communist Party’s No. 5 leader, and Liu delivered a message from Chinese President Xi Jinping, KCNA said.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Liu told Kim that China is willing to work with North Korea for a quick resumption of six-party nuclear talks. The talks, which aim to end the North’s nuclear program and also involve the U.S., South Korea, Russia and Japan, stalled seven years ago.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and threatened a fourth as part of the nuclear weapons and missile programs that it has pursued through a barrage of international sanctions.
There is debate among experts as to how far it has come in developing those weapons, especially the ability to shrink nuclear warheads so that they can fit on a missile.
An exhaustively researched report published earlier in the week by the U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated that North Korea had between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons as of the end of 2014. The report said it was likely the country could already build a warhead to fit atop a Nodong missile — with a range of less than 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) — but added that the reliability of such a weapon was open to question.
Some foreign analysts believe the particularly strong emphasis this year on making the anniversary of the party’s foundation such a lavish fete is a sign that Kim is trying to build up his own stature along with that of the party relative to the military.
Officials have recently stressed the role of the party in improving the standard of living for the people, who are increasingly aware of how far they lag behind their affluent cousins in South Korea and in economic giant China.
In the run-up to this year’s anniversary, large-scale construction and development projects have been launched and hailed with great fanfare in the state media.
The projects include new hydropower plants and high-rise apartments, but it is unclear how much of North Korea’s limited financial resources have been put into improving the lot of the majority of its citizens who are not fortunate enough to live in the relatively developed capital.