SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned Saturday that his country would “fully mobilize” its nuclear force if threatened as he took center stage at a massive military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the country’s ruling party.
Kim, however, avoided direct criticism of Washington during the event, which took place less than four weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Instead, he focused on a domestic message urging his people to remain firm in face of “tremendous challenges” posed by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program.
Outside observers were expecting the North to possibly unveil the latest weapons in its growing nuclear arsenal that threatens U.S. allies in Asia and the American mainland.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said early in the day that there were signs that the North had mobilized “large crowds and equipment” for a military parade at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square during the early morning hours. In the evening, North Korean state television began airing a taped broadcast of the event, which began late Friday.
The early stages of the event did not feature a display of new strategic weapons, although in the past the country’s ballistic missiles and other crucial hardware were displayed in later parts of such parades.
Goose-stepping troops were seen marching in the streets in front of the brightly illuminated square, as a military band performed while moving in formation, shaping “10.10,” “1945,” and “2020” in honor of the anniversary.
The performers and tens of thousands of spectators roared as Kim, dressed in a gray suit and tie, appeared from a building as the clock struck midnight. Kim, flanked with senior officials and smiling widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on the podium.
During his speech, Kim repeatedly thanked his “great people” for overcoming “unexpected” burdens and thoroughly abiding by the anti-virus measures imposed by the ruling party and government to keep the country COVID-19-free, a claim that has been widely questioned by outside observers. He also extended an olive branch to rival South Korea, expressing hope that the countries could repair bilateral ties once the threat of the pandemic is over.
His speech was expected to be followed by a parade of North Korea’s military hardware.
It’s unusual for the North to hold a military parade during the dark pre-dawn hours, although such conditions may provide benefits in protecting sensitive information about crucial weapons that were rolled out or creating spectacles through the use of lights.
Earlier Saturday, masked citizens lined up to lay flowers at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler, at Pyongyang’s Mansu Hill. A huge street poster that highlighted the ruling Workers’ Party’s symbol — a hammer, brush and sickle — read “Best glory to our great party.”
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said residents in Kaesong and other regions who had lost their homes to recent natural disasters marked the party anniversary by moving into newly built houses and that they praised Kim Jong Un for looking after them as “their father.”
KCNA also reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim saying that Beijing would continue to “defend, consolidate and develop” bilateral relations with Pyongyang.
This year’s anniversary comes amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration and deepening economic woes that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim’s leadership since he took power in 2011.
South Korean officials and analysts have said North Korea could showcase a new intercontinental ballistic missile or other nuclear-capable weapons during a parade, which would highlight how the country has continued to expand its military capabilities amid stalled nuclear talks.
Expressing deep frustrations over the diplomacy, Kim pledged in December to soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world” while declaring to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of “gangster-like” U.S. pressure.
But while he may put on a huge display of his military hardware for the anniversary, analysts say Kim will likely avoid direct or harsh criticism toward Washington during his speech at the event and instead focus on a domestic message of unity in the face of economic hardship.
Many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the U.S. presidential election in November, as a change in U.S. administrations could force the country to recalibrate its approach toward Washington and Seoul.
Authoritarian North Korea is keen about anniversaries, and this week’s festivities were earmarked for years in advance as a major event to glorify Kim Jong Un’s achievements as leader.
But there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately as Kim struggles to keep afloat an economy crippled by years of stringent U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program and ravaged further this year by border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating summer floods and typhoons that will likely worsen chronic food shortages.
The problems, combined with North Korea’s depleting foreign currency reserves, are possibly setting conditions for a “perfect storm” that shocks food prices and exchange rates and triggers economic panic in the coming months, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy.
That would compound the political burden on Kim, who during a political conference in August showed unusual candor by acknowledging that his economic plans aren’t succeeding.
Kim and President Donald Trump have met three times since embarking on high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018 as the North Korean leader attempted to leverage his nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security benefits. But talks have faltered over disagreements on disarmament steps and the removal of sanctions imposed on the North.
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