North Korean soldiers march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj

South Korea was shocked to learn last month that North Korea was rescheduling a military parade – and holding it just one day before the 2018 Winter Olympics kicks off. The event went ahead today (Thursday), as planned – but proved oddly low key.

The parade was not broadcast on North Korean television, nor were foreign reporters permitted to cover it. It was also smaller in scale than a major parade last April, shorter in duration, and showcased fewer missiles, according to specialist North Korean website NK News.

The event had been announced by Pyongyang state media on January 23, shocking many in South Korea, as largely amicable inter-Korean negotiations to enable North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics had been underway since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech.

Adding further confusion to North Korea’s mixed messaging – on the one hand, coming to the Olympics for a festival of sport and goodwill; on the other, staging a military parade the day prior – was the fact that the event commemorates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the nation’s armed forces. For years, the armed forces foundation day event had taken place on April 25. This year, it was switched to February 8.

The unexplained change of date has caused consternation, with some in both South Korea and the United States believing it to be North Korea’s attempt to steal the spotlight from the Winter Olympiad.

Given that the parade offered the regime a massive propaganda opportunity domestically, as well as the chance to awe the region and the world, the fact that Pyongyang apparently downsized it suggests it may be in the mood for dialogue.

The event also came just one day after it was announced that the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, would attend the Winter Olympics on Friday, February 9.

In his New Year’s speech, Kim had said the country would move to “mass produce” missiles. This is a strategic necessity: large numbers of missiles are required to overcome layered anti-missile defenses and reach their targets. For this reason, there was speculation among pundits that a large fleet of missiles would be showcased during the parade.

But in the event, just four Hwasong 15 inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBMs) – the North’s biggest such weapon – on mobile transporters, were shown, with Kim looking on.

Some experts have raised doubts as to whether Kim’s decrepit economy is capable of manufacturing or acquiring enough engines to power a swarm of missiles, meaning they do not actually have the assets they would most want to showcase.

“They want that capability in the future but I think they still have a lot of problems,” said Kim Chang-su, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis.

An alternative explanation is that North Korea may be keeping the bulk of its missiles under wraps as a gesture of conciliation towards South Korea and/or the United States before the Games begin.

Test-launched in November, the Hwasong 15  has the range to hit anywhere in the US, and Pyongyang has successfully conducted six nuclear tests. If the North Koreans have mastered the technologies needed for a re-entry vehicle and targeting systems, they will have a fully functioning nuclear deterrent.

The toned down scale of the parade, and the decision not to  highlight the missiles in footage, suggests therefore, that they may be hoping to placate the United States.

“They are gauging responses,” Kim said. “Washington has said, ‘No more talks with North Korea unless they send a clear message,’ so they want to send a clear message: ‘We are capable, but we are going to restrain this kind of capability, so we want dialogue with you.’”

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