In a move seen as a possible bid to steal some of the Olympic limelight and one that could jeopardize easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea has moved forward the date it will mark the 70th anniversary of its regular army’s founding to Feb. 8 — just a day before the Winter Games kick off in the South.
The North has in recent years marked the anniversary on April 25, and had used the date to showcase powerful new weapons systems, including purported ballistic missiles, in massive military parades overseen by leader Kim Jong Un.
While it was unclear if this year would see such a mobilization, any such move would come at a time of rapprochement between the two Koreas, which have agreed to cooperate for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The North plans to join the Feb. 9-25 games by sending athletes, an art troupe and key officials.
According to the official Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang “will take practical steps to significantly mark the founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army.”
April 25, it added, will continue to be marked as the founding anniversary of the “Korean People’s Revolutionary Army,” which the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, set up as an anti-Japanese guerrilla force in 1932.
Until 1978, the KPA anniversary had been marked on Feb. 8, and the return to that date would give Pyongyang a stronger justification for staging a military parade. Any show of military force would likely garner a worldwide audience tuning in for both the Olympics and curious about the North’s nuclear push.
A recent satellite imagery analysis by the North Korea-dedicated website NKPro showed troops and military vehicles rehearsing at an airfield near Pyongyang, supporting earlier media reports.
A South Korean government official told the Yonhap news agency Tuesday that the numbers of participating troops were increasing.
“At Mirim airfield, 13,000 soldiers and some 200 vehicles were spotted preparing for the parade,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying.
Still, those numbers paled in comparison to those seen last April 15, when the North marked the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. That parade also showcased a range of weaponry, including what appeared at the time to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile. In comparison, last year’s April 25 parade was relatively subdued.
Analysts have said that while the size of military parades by the North have varied by size and composition significantly over the years, it was likely to try to repeat or even top its recent military showcases.
“Last year they rolled out several new rockets and then proceeded to test them one by one,” said Shea Cotton, a North Korea expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California. “I could see them maybe doing the same thing again this year.”
Cotton added that although there was a chance they could downplay any event, he would “be really surprised” if that were the case.
“They met some pretty big milestones last year and so I think they’d want to show them off especially with the whole world watching,” he said.
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said holding a military parade would be consistent with the goals of the North’s leadership, which he said wishes to ” ‘normalize’ its military prowess in the eyes of the international community, South Korea, and others in the region.”
Pinkston said that the timing just before the Olympics of any parade would also be in Pyongyang’s interests. It would come amid growing dissatisfaction with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s handling of relations with the Pyongyang and skepticism over the Olympic cooperation. Moon’s approval rating fell to a four-month low of 66 percent, according to a poll released Monday.
“Creating splits and divisions within South Korean society, and between the U.S. and the ROK, as well as among member of the U.N. Security Council, are all viewed as positive developments from North Korea’s perspective,” Pinkston said, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
“Given the nature of the announcement, the leadership has decided that it is very important from their perspective, so I expect an impressive parade,” he said.
North Korea has continued to stoke global condemnation after conducting a spate of missile tests and its sixth nuclear blast last year.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula had soared to unprecedented heights in the wake of Pyongyang’s November claim that its nuclear program was “complete” after the successful launch of a long-range missile that experts believe is capable of striking the continental United States. But the hostilities have cooled in recent weeks after the two Koreas agreed to cooperate on the Winter Olympics.
That cooperation has been widely seen as a possible bridge to further talks on the North’s nuclear program, though some experts have cast doubt that Pyongyang would seriously entertain discussions about denuclearization.
The United States said Monday that it has no plans to meet with North Korean officials around the Pyeongchang Games, Yonhap quoted the U.S. State Department as saying.
“We have been clear about our position on U.S.-North Korea talks,” a State Department spokesperson said in emailed comments to Yonhap. “There are no plans to meet with North Korean officials before or after the end of the Olympic games.”
The spokesperson added that while the U.S. remains open to “serious and credible” denuclearization negotiations, North Korea has shown it has no interest in such talks at this time.
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