SEOUL – Kim Jong Un was expected to preside over a toned-down military parade Sunday designed to showcase North Korea’s strength without jeopardizing his efforts to rejoin the international community.
While Kim is likely to mark the 70th anniversary of his grandfather’s regime with columns of goose-stepping soldiers and armored vehicles, analysts said he would take care displaying more provocative hardware. Showing off advancements in missiles capable of striking the U.S. risks irking President Donald Trump, who said in June that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.”
“Kim wants to bask in the glory of his achievement and show to the world that he is someone to be taken seriously,” said Markus Schiller, a missile expert and founder of the Munich-based security consulting firm ST Analytics. “There is no need to display something new.”
An analysis of satellite imagery published Tuesday by the website 38 North suggested that Sunday’s parade would “likely be considerably larger” than a similar event earlier this year. No large mobile missile launchers were observed, although such equipment could be kept undercover until just before the event.
The parade comes at a delicate time, as Kim presses for a peace declaration to formally end the war North Korea and China fought against U.S.-led forces from 1950-53. Kim got to the bargaining table in part by vowing not to resume nuclear tests, and he could use peace talks to legitimize his regime and get international sanctions relaxed.
The U.S.’s newly appointed special representative for North Korea, former Ford Motor Co. executive Steve Biegun, was due to arrive in the region Monday. And South Korean President Moon Jae-in was slated to travel to Pyongyang on Sept. 18 for the first such trip in 11 years.
The parties are struggling to implement a 1½ page document signed by Trump and Kim in June at the first-ever summit between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders. The two leaders pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” without setting a timetable or explaining what that means.
The parade will be closely watched for pronouncements by Kim that could suggest a new challenge to the U.S. or a willingness to compromise. What hardware he rolls out — and how much of it — could signal his level of commitment to talks or intent to tweak U.S. allies.
“Any new developments on short-range missiles could be a message to us, rather than the United States,” said Lee Ho-ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
North Korea’s state-run media published Friday what it said was an “indictment” by its South Korean wing, denouncing U.S. forces on the peninsula and calling their withdrawal “the irresistible trend of the times.” The statement contrasted with Kim’s remarks to visiting South Korean envoys Wednesday, when he said that declaring peace wouldn’t require American troops to leave.
In April 2017, as tensions with Trump were escalating, Kim paraded a series of missile canisters through Kim Il Sung Square that foreshadowed his later test of a rocket capable of reaching Washington. A February event, which came amid the first diplomatic breakthroughs between the two sides, was much smaller and featured no obvious new threats to the U.S.
The parade also provided Kim an opportunity to show off restored ties with his most important ally, China. President Xi Jinping was expected to send his former chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Pyongyang in nine years.
Although China provided crucial backing to United Nations sanctions last year, Trump has since accused Xi of relaxing pressure in retaliation over their trade disputes. Kim not only needs security backing from Beijing but help rebuilding his economy, which South Korea’s central bank said slipped into recession in 2017.
“It’s favorable to both of them, but especially to North Korea,” said Choo Jaewoo, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University. “North Korea has the economic problems and there are people unhappy with that.”
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