North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a rare military parade in the early hours of Thursday — the first since U.S. President Joe Biden took office — with the event likely intended for a domestic audience rather than as a show of force.
Kim, wearing a gray suit and looking noticeably thinner, was seen in Pyongyang watching the parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the country’s founding in pictures released by state media. However, the North Korean leader did not deliver a speech and it appeared that no new strategic weapons had been unveiled, adhering to past precedent for most foundation anniversaries.
Instead, the parade in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square was led mainly by paramilitary and public security forces, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Rather than ballistic missiles, the ruling party’s official newspaper published photographs of people marching in orange hazmat suits with medical-grade masks, likely a symbol of efforts by the regime to keep the deadly coronavirus at bay.
"The columns of emergency epidemic prevention and the Ministry of Public Health were full of patriotic enthusiasm to display the advantages of the socialist system all over the world, while firmly protecting the security of the country and its people from the worldwide pandemic," the KCNA dispatch said.
A South Korean military official had earlier told the Yonhap news agency that the parade appeared to be smaller in scale than the last two parades in January and last October, lasting about an hour, and was mainly geared at a domestic audience.
North Korea shuttered its borders at the beginning of the pandemic and officially claims to have zero cases — a claim doubted by many analysts. The border closures have reportedly wreaked havoc on the country and its economy, exacerbating a food crisis that has even prompted Kim — who is viewed as a godlike figure in the country — to address the issue.
At its January parade, held days before Biden was sworn in, the nuclear-armed North showed off a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, revealing yet another weapon that experts believe puts Japan in its crosshairs and lays the foundation for a longer-range solid-fueled rocket.
The October event, meanwhile, saw the Kim regime unveil a monster new intercontinental ballistic missile thought by some analysts to be capable of carrying enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. missile defenses.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said viewing the latest parade as a signal to foreign audiences would be a mistake.
“We shouldn’t overinterpret foreign policy or negotiating signals from a parade that’s primarily aimed at domestic political audiences,” Easley said. “North Korean society is under tremendous stress because of decisions made by the Kim regime, so the parade is intended to show strength and serve as a quarantine morale booster.”
Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since October 2019, largely over disagreements on the easing of crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions that have suffocated the North Korean economy.
After completing a monthslong policy review earlier this year, the Biden administration said that it would aim for a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” seeking the North’s eventual denuclearizaton, adding that it was prepared to meet anywhere, anytime. Pyongyang has not responded to the U.S. overtures.
In June, in his first direct comments on the Biden administration, Kim said the North should prepare for both dialogue and confrontation with the United States, particularly the latter. The North has not conducted a major weapons test since launching two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in March.
Top officials from Japan, the United States and South Korea are expected to hold talks in Tokyo next week to discuss North Korea, including how to move forward the stalled denuclearization talks, Kyodo News reported Tuesday.
“Pyongyang may fire off a test to start a new provocation cycle in search of greater incentives,” said Easley. “But the Kim regime should know by now that Washington is not going to provide sanctions relief without progress on denuclearization.”
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