SEOUL – For months, North Korea has been relatively uncombative, as leader Kim Jong Un grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters and the deepening economic pain under years of tough U.S.-led sanctions.
But ahead of the 75th founding anniversary of his ruling party this weekend, speculation has risen that Kim may hold a massive military parade and unveil newly developed, powerful missiles. The goal, experts say, would be to bolster internal unity and draw U.S. attention amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy between the countries.
“His people are considerably wearied and his economy is in trouble ... so Kim Jong Un would want to mobilize his people and stress a self-reliant policy to quell their complaints and draw their loyalty,” Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “To do so, he would need new weapons, powerful weapons that would send a message to the entire world.”
Recent satellite images showed thousands of troops assembling in formation along with vehicles in an apparent rehearsal at an airfield on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where the North Koreans have practiced past parades. South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook told lawmakers Wednesday that North Korea is expected to unveil unspecified “strategic weapons” during a military parade marking the Oct. 10 anniversary.
North Korea typically celebrates major state anniversaries with big military parades during years that end in zero and five. But it has sometimes made those parades less provocative when it was seeking better relations with the outside world.
During a parade marking the 70th birthday of its socialist government in September 2018, Kim didn’t speak and avoided displaying any of his long-range missiles, as the event came three months after he held his first summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore on the future of his nuclear arsenal. In celebrations marking his late grandfather’s birthday in 2012 and 2017, Kim still paraded his intercontinental ballistic missiles in a display of military might as he raised the stakes in the standoff with the United States.
Kim met Trump two more times, but their nuclear diplomacy has been stalled for more than a year because of disputes over exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.
Kim entered 2020 declaring his intent to strengthen his nuclear deterrent and achieve a “frontal breakthrough” against U.S.-led economic pressure. But the North’s broken economy was further ravaged by border closures amid the coronavirus pandemic, which significantly reduced its trade with China, its major ally and economic lifeline. The heavy floods and strong typhoons that battered the North’s major farming regions this summer will certainly worsen the country’s chronic food shortages, outside observers say.