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North Korea marks 70th birthday with toned-down military parade amid stalled U.S. nuclear talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff writer

North Korea held a military parade Sunday to mark its 70th birthday but apparently did not display its longer-range ballistic missiles — including those capable of hitting the U.S. — media reports and photos showed, amid what could be a move by Pyongyang to demonstrate seriousness about a pledged shift in focus from its nuclear weapons program to its economy.

A contingent of foreign journalists were invited to watch the parade, and reports said that troops, artillery and tanks made their way past leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square but that the largest missiles shown were short-range battlefield devices.

This contrasted sharply with the last military parade in February, when the North, in a thinly veiled threat to the U.S., displayed what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles including the Hwasong-15, which experts say is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to any city in the continental United States.

Photos from the parade — the first since Kim’s landmark June meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore — showed the North Korean leader watching the event from a viewing stand. Unlike some past parades, he did not make a speech.

China’s Li Zhanzhu, the head of the National People’s Congress and one of seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo standing committee, also attended the parade, and was seen in photos joining hands with Kim on the viewing stand.

Speculation had abounded as to what weapons the North might show off and what kind of message the parade might send to the United States amid stalled nuclear talks between the two.

The low-key approach suggested that North Korea was looking to keep the nuclear talks going despite the recent cancelation of a visit by the top U.S. diplomat to Pyongyang.

The talks hit a snag last month, prompting Trump to cancel a planned trip to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just hours before he was due to leave. Media reports cited a belligerent secret letter from Kim Yong Chol, the North’s No. 2 official, that put the possibility of a successful visit in doubt.

The nuclear talks may be at an impasse over the two parties’ understanding of what was agreed to at the June summit in Singapore. Kim is said to be seeking a declaration to end the Korean War, a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the 1950-53 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.

But some in the U.S. fear such a declaration could be used to undermine the need for U.S. troops in South Korea.

Despite the faltering U.S.-North Korea talks, Kim has appeared to appeal directly to Trump, telling visiting South Korean officials last week that his “trust in Trump remains unchanged” despite the ongoing difficulties.

“What we saw was mainly business as usual in that the point was still that North Korea is strong and able to defend itself — and the regime is now focused on economic development,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “North Korea may well have judged parading ICBMs sent the wrong signals at a time of diplomatic engagement, but the reality is North Korea still has them and will continue to view maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent as a central element of its security policy.”