SEOUL – North Korea – a nation known for springing surprises upon the world – has done it again.
A mighty military parade was widely anticipated today, the 75th anniversary of the Workers Party of Korea. But as the hours ticked by on Saturday nothing was seen. Only in late evening, did state media broadcast the event, which appeared to have taken place earlier in the day.
Highly unusually, the parade had clearly taken place in darkness.
In addition to the perfectly choreographed marching legions of the Korean People’s Army, conventional artillery and a range of armored fighting vehicles, massive strategic weapons systems rolled through central Pyongyang’s iconic Kim Il Sung Square.
They included ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) mounted on TELS (huge transporter-erector launcher road vehicles), AFP, which maintains a locally-staffed bureau in Pyongyang, reported. Also seen in AFP photographs was a vehicle-mounted SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile).
In a dual-pronged speech, national leader Kim Jong Un, in a smart, gray Western-style suit rather than his usual tunic, vowed to continue to strengthen “war deterrence.” But he also wished “good health to all the people around the world who are fighting the ills of the evil virus.”
Nobody on the podium, in the marching ranks or in the streets watching appeared to be wearing a mask.
According to a terse Saturday statement from the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, the parade had taken place in the early hours of the morning.
Great expectations finally rewarded
There had been widespread expectations.
On Thursday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry had briefed the National Assembly, forecasting a roll-out of new strategic weapons in the expected parade. In a report emblematic of South Korean media expectations, the English-language Korea Times headlined a story this morning, “North Korea to defy coronavirus with huge parade.”
And the ne plus ultra of North Korea-watching media, 38th North, had shown satellite imagery of troops rehearsing drills and Kim Il Sung Square being apparently prepared for a parade.
North Korean watchers, rolling out an alphabet soup of warlike acronyms, had been salivating at what might be revealed, from SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles), or the latest ICBMs – possibly topped with a re-entry vehicle warhead, or multiple warhead – and TELs.
A SLBM is a new, under-development weapon that, like an ICBM, could threaten the continental US. ICBMs are the delivery vehicle of nuclear warheads to the US, and experts were keen to see whether their tips included multiple warheads and atmospheric re-entry vehicles. And the number of TELs available is an important indicator of Pyongyang’s ability to disperse its strategic missile arsenal – a key issue in arsenal’s deterrents’ survivability.
Even if only mock ups of weapons are paraded, it still reveals what technologies are being worked upon by North Korean military scientists, analysts say.
Experts are expected to be analyzing the North Korean state media footage, and probably satellite imagery, in the hours and days ahead to find out what North Korea’s capabilities and/or strategic aspirations are.
With America currently engaged in a tense and unusually heated electoral campaign, weapons capable of threatening the US homeland are attention grabbers – or even potential bargaining chips – aimed at the incoming president.
“Signs have been detected that North Korea conducted a military parade at the Kim Il Sung square at dawn by mobilizing a large number of equipment and personnel,” South Korea’s Joint Staffs said in a statement carried by the South’s Yonhap news agency. “South Korean and US intelligence authorities have been analyzing [the event].”
Yonhap speculated that the parade began before 4am. Sunrise is at 6.30am. Yet a pre-dawn parade raises as many questions as a non-parade.
Mass rallies do happen in the hours of darkness: from the Nazis’ torch-lit parades to foster public unity to South Korean activists’ candlelit rallies to protest injustice. However, after-dark military parades are a different matter and one prominent North Korea watcher could recall no single benchmark.
“I cannot think of a single night-time parade in Communist history,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian specialist on North Korea who is currently based at Seoul’s Kookmin University, and who also studied at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University. “The message of a parade is to show off your military capabilities – the training and discipline of your units to friend and foe alike, so doing it at night is pretty much useless.”
“It’s a really odd one,” admitted Chad O’Carroll, Seoul-based CEO of North Korea Risk Group, who said he was awaiting a video of the early-hours parade to air on North Korean state media. “The only reason I can think of to do it at night would be to have a relatively more stealthy transport of strategic weapons,” he told Asia Times.
And he noted that, even by North Korea’s stringent standards, there has been unusual pressure in recent days on Pyongyang’s foreign community not to snoop.
“Diplomats and foreign aid staff have all been locked into their compounds since yesterday, so maybe [North Korean authorities] did not want them to get sneaky photos of things rolling by,” O’Carroll told Asia Times. “This week diplomats have been scolded twice for taking photos at the parade ground.”
Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow specializing in North Korea at prominent Seoul think tank the Asan Institute suspected the North Koreans were playing an even craftier game than usual.
“I think they want to demonstrate their latest ICBM, but the want to hide some of the specs, or it could just be a mock up not the real thing,” he said. “It’s an information issue: They try to hide some critical information, but at the same time they want to send a message.”
A show of force is aimed at two audiences. One is the domestic public, who have been suffering from the economic impact of the country’s strict Covid-19-related border closures that has invalidated trade with China. The other is the incoming US president.
“Everything tells me the North Koreans don’t want to annoy the Americans and they don’t want to decrease the chances of Mr. Trump being elected,” said Lankov. “He is dangerous, but they have learned how to manipulate him. Biden is probably not dangerous but chances of a deal with him are essentially zero.”
Go suggested that an hours-of-darkness parade could be a North Korean solution to the conundrum the US election presents. “To get attention, you need provocations and you need a diplomatic cycle,” he said. “Maybe they are starting small at this juncture – a contrived solution to the dilemma.”