A file photo shows  Musudan-class missiles being displayed during a military parade in honor of the 100th birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. Photo: AFP
A file photo shows Musudan-class missiles during a military parade in honor of the 100th birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012. Photo: AFP

Speculation is rising that Chinese President Xi Jinping – possibly accompanied by an honor guard of People’s Liberation Army troops – will appear alongside local leader Kim Jong Un at a symbolically important parade in Pyongyang next month.

At a time when Washington has unleashed a trade war upon Beijing, while the denuclearization process agreed between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore at their June summit appears to be stalled, the appearance of the Chinese leader – and elite PLA troops – would send a significant cross-Pacific message about Sino-North Korean amity.

September 9 is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, and the day is expected to be marked with a massive parade in Kim Il Sung square. The flagship plaza at the center of Pyongyang was created from the rubble of buildings bombed flat during the Korean War, and is a frequent site for massive military parades.

Chinese state newspapers including the Global Times and Reference News have run stories this week speculating on the size and significance of the big parade. Typically though, neither the Korean Central News Agency nor Korean Central Television – key media organs in one of the world’s most opaque states – have dropped any hints about the upcoming muster of military might.

Lack of censorship looks to confirm speculation

Posts hinting that President Xi will visit Pyongyang to review troops alongside Kim have not been pulled from social networking platforms by party censors since related rumors started to swirl last month. Nor has talk that Xi may dispatch PLA honor guards to goose-step shoulder-to-shoulder with their North Korean comrades.

While Xi and Kim had never met before this year due to bilateral tensions sparked by Kim’s execution of his uncle Jang Song-taek – who had strong connections in Beijing – and by China’s support for international sanctions, they have met three times so far in 2018. The meetings proceeded as part of Kim’s unprecedented diplomatic offensive, which has also seen him meet Trump once, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in twice.

The friendship between the two avowedly communist states may be in a process of rejuvenation, but is not new. China’s intervention in the Korean War saved the North Korean state from extinction at the hands of US-led UN forces in October 1950.

In 1961, the two signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty; its second article calls for mutual defense against external enemies. The treaty has been renewed twice and is up for renegotiation in 2021.

Goose-steppers’ paradise, but no ICBM?

The general consensus is that the parade could be considerably larger than one held in February on the anniversary of the Korean People’s Army.

Large cavalcades of troops, tanks and artillery on the ground and swarms of war-craft in the air are anticipated, after Kim reportedly ordered the military to put its best foot forward to shore up the morale of North Koreans and cast the image of an invincible army.

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A satellite image of the preparation for the national day parade at the Mirim Parade Training Ground in Pyongyang. Photo: The Stimson Center via Planet Labs, Inc

The Mirim Parade Training Ground in Pyongyang has been a hive of activity, as seen on satellite imagery taken earlier this month, with around 120 military vehicles in formations, including assault tanks, unmanned-aerial-vehicle launchers and six tarp-covered Scud-class transporter-erector-launchers, among others, captured practicing on the facility’s roads.

A replica of Kim Il Sung Square, and an expended tent area believed to house and service troops were also visible in these images.

But the Global Times cited the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, as saying that no launchers for intercontinental ballistic missiles were spotted so far.

Cui Zhiying, director of the Shanghai-based Tongji University Korean Peninsula Research Center, told the tabloid that the Hwasong-15 nuclear warhead-capable ICBMs – with a theoretical range covering almost all of the US – would not be showcased this time for the sake of the thaw in ties between Pyongyang and Washington.

However, those ties, over the last week, appear in danger of freezing over once more, following Trump’s order to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to travel to Pyongyang last Friday to attend negotiations. Trump cited a lack of progress in North Korea’s denuclearization as the reason for his move.

Moon on a mission

Xi, assuming he does appear in Pyongyang, will not be the only high-profile visitor in September. Amid an apparent downturn in relations between Pyongyang and Washington, South Korean President Moon has also announced a summit with Kim in the North Korean capital next month.

While there, Moon’s key mission will be an intermediary one. He hopes to reinvigorate the denuclearization process and bring Pyongyang and Washington back onto the same page, South Korean presidential officials say.

However, while the dates for Moon’s trip have not yet been released, he is highly unlikely to visit on the 9th – the date when the communist state was founded in contravention to his own, US-backed state in 1948.

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