North Korea appears to have staged a military parade in Pyongyang in the early hours of Thursday, the South’s defence ministry said, in what would be the nuclear-armed nation’s third such display in less than a year.
Pyongyang has continued to pursue its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes — for which it is internationally sanctioned — during the diplomatic engagement of recent years and uses the set-pieces to show off its latest developments.
At the last parade in January — a night-time event days before Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president — submarine-launched ballistic missiles rolled through Kim Il Sung Square in front of a grinning Kim Jong Un, with the official KCNA news agency describing them as the “world’s most powerful weapon”.
“There are signs of the North having staged a parade” on Thursday, an official of South Korea’s defence ministry told AFP.
It was not immediately clear what military systems were included in the parade, or whether Kim attended.
“We are closely monitoring the situation,” the official added. “More details require further analysis.”
Specialist website NK News cited sources in Pyongyang saying that fireworks went off in the city centre around midnight and again at 1 am, and jets were heard flying overhead, both of them consistent with a parade taking place.
Thursday is the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North is officially known.
North Korean state media had not released images of the parade by mid-morning, nor confirmed that it had taken place.
– ‘Dead of night’ –
Three parades in the space of 12 months — the January parade marked a five-yearly congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, and came after one in October for the organisation’s 75th anniversary — is unusually frequent for North Korea.
It has not carried out a nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile launch since 2017.
Instead, it was looking to use the parade to send a “message to the international community” without risking escalation, said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“The only other way to show off their strategic weapons is to launch them, which carries the risk of sparking protest and further international sanctions,” he told AFP.
“The North must have felt a need to apply pressure to the US to come to the negotiating table” on its terms, he added.
Nonetheless, it is never certain whether Pyongyang is displaying actual missiles or models at its set-piece events.
Nuclear talks with the United States have been at a standstill since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Kim and then president Donald Trump over sanctions relief and what North Korea would be willing to give up in return.
Biden’s North Korea envoy Sung Kim has repeatedly expressed his willingness to meet his North Korean counterparts “anywhere, at any time”.
The Biden administration has promised a “practical, calibrated approach”, including diplomatic efforts, to persuade the impoverished North to give up its banned weapons programmes.
But Pyongyang has never shown any indication it would be willing to surrender its nuclear arsenal, and has rebuffed South Korean efforts to revive dialogue.
Last month, the UN atomic agency (IAEA) said Pyongyang appeared to have started its plutonium-producing reprocessing reactor at Yongbyon, calling it a “deeply troubling” development, and Kim’s sister and key adviser Kim Yo Jong demanded the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula.
At the same time, North Korea is under a self-imposed coronavirus blockade, having closed its borders to protect against the coronavirus that first emerged in neighbouring China, adding to the pressure on its moribund economy.
Domestically the parade was an opportunity to shore up morale and “mass solidarity for the regime”, Hong Min added.
“Taking place in the dead of night, it gives the public something to enjoy and watch with fireworks, air shows and displays of advanced weapons.”