SEOUL – North Korea’s capital Pyongyang resounded to the sound of marching boots Thursday as the state held a low-profile and apparently hastily arranged military-civilian parade.
It celebrated the 73rd anniversary of the official foundation of the North Korean state under the late “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current national leader Kim Jong Un.
The after-dark event follows an emerging pattern that experts say is based on Kim Jong Un’s personal aesthetic sense, reflected in upgraded lighting installed last year around the most iconic square in Pyongyang.
No new weapons systems were reportedly showcased and elite military units – such as strategic rocket forces and commandos – did not get the limelight. As such, the parade is in synch with a non-provocative trend from what is widely seen as a menacing state.
The non-threatening nature of the parade, experts say, indicates deference to China, on which isolated North Korea is now almost totally reliant for energy and trade.
With the US having just undertaken a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, Beijing does not want to give Washington – which has boots on the ground in Japan and South Korea, and is encouraging its allies to extend naval interoperability in the South and East China Seas – any excuse for further moves in East Asia.
March of the militia
According to North Korean state media monitored in Seoul, the parade began at midnight Thursday and lasted for just an hour. It was smaller than the two previous parades, held in January this year and October last year.
Unusually, it was mostly conducted by the Worker Peasant Red Guard, a civil defense militia believed to be over 5 million strong, rather than by the regular North Korean People’s Army, or NKPA.
Giant flags were unfurled, while military dogs and rocket-artillery tow tractors paraded. So, too, did workers dressed in hazmat suits and respirators; the workers are believed to man customs posts on the border with China.
The community of pundits who keenly dissect images of North Korean parades to uncover details about the NKPA’s latest hardware – such as ballistic missiles and launch vehicles – was disappointed. According to a South Korean military source quoted by Seoul’s Yonhap news agency, no cutting-edge weaponry was on display.
Some believe that national leader Kim has put new priority on party mechanisms and offered other personalities, including his sister, Yo Jong, major speaking roles, in a bid to give his nation a more “normalized” appearance and procedures than the “one-man state” it is widely believed to be.
Dressed in a western-style grey suit Kim, looking slimmer than in the past and sporting a less idiosyncratic hairstyle than his usual flattop, attended and waved at crowds but did not address the gathering.
Instead, Party Secretary Ri Il-hwan spoke.
Without offering detail, Ri stressed the need to upgrade juche – the nationalist “self-reliance” concept attributed to Kim Il Sung – and to increase the power of the NKPA. In a possible nod to the main attendees, he said party policy is to put “all people under arms” and to “turn the whole country into a fortress.”
Kim’s mysterious midnight parades
But if the aim of a parade is to showcase might, why hold it at midnight – North Korea’s third such after-dark parade in a row – rather than in daylight?
“The Soviets never did parades at midnight – never, period,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Kukmin University. “When it comes to nighttime parades, there was the idea that these were basically Western romantic ideas, and they have bad political associations, with the Nazis.”
While night marches and even torch-lit parades have been held in North Korea dating back to the 1980s, Kim said, the current taste for after-dark military parades dates back to last October. Another after-dark parade took place in January this year.
Experts say the reason is aesthetic. It is an analysis backed up by the remodeling and re-lighting of Kim Il Sung Square – the Pyongyang landmark built on paved-over rubble from the Korean War ruins of the city.
“They invested in repurposing Kim Il Sung Square and installed lighting arrays just before last October’s midnight parade,” Chad O’Carroll founder of specialist media NKNews told Asia Times. “Aesthetically, it looks better… the lights are stadium-quality and are excellent for propaganda.”
It’s a convincing explanation, given how important optics are to the regime. But given how North Korea likes to showcase the hardware of its strategic rocket forces, as well as the exemplary foot drill of its elite units, why were militia, rather than regular forces chosen for the parade?
Evidence over the last weeks suggests that the parade was hastily arranged, meaning troops had to be supplied from the capital area.
“It could have been logistics,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Insititute. “If they prepared this at the last minute, they probably did not have time to bring in active-duty troops, whom they would have had to get there from different areas of the country, and quarantine.”
Though no TV broadcasts of the parade had been released by North Korean state media at the time of writing, the footage may be spectacular, given how the state has also been upgrading filming protocols.
O’Carroll mentioned remote-controlled trolley drones that can film marchers and the undersides of armored vehicles from knee height, as well as airborne UAV cameras. All, he said, are based on the latest techniques China uses to film its own parades, which North Korea has copied.
Why the low profile?
The minimalist nature of the parade – the first since President Joe Biden took office – is part of a trend in which North Korea has not launched any significant provocation since 2017.
That year, the country test-detonated what it claims was a hydrogen bomb and test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile which analysts assessed could hit anywhere in the continental US.
Since then, the country has conducted a number of short and medium-range missiles tests, and blown up an inter-Korean liaison office. Kim’s sister has also unleashed a number of rhetorical barrages. But none of these activities are on the scale of 2017’s moves.
One reason for this low profile is that North Korea’s key national partner does not want its ally raising tensions in East Asia.
“China does not like it, and now North Korea is more dependent on China than at any time in the last 70 years,” said Lankov. The time period referred to is the 1950-53 Korean War, when the North Korean state was saved by Chinese military intervention.
Currently, Beijing provides a lifeline of such necessities as fuel and food, while also being Pyongyang’s major trade partner and lead investor. Experts believe that while North Korea constantly trumpets the concept of juche, Pyongyang’s elite recognizes the reality of their dependence upon China, however galling it may be.
“They don’t like China,” said Lankov. “But they have to listen to China and make compromises.”
One key compromise is not raising regional tensions that would provide Washington an excuse to increase leverage in the region.
“Does China wants to see more US troops in region?” Lankov asked rhetorically. “Is it happy to see how pro-American South Korea and Japan are becoming? Is China happy to provide excuses to America to station more troops in not just Japan and Korea but also somewhere else?”
Kim stuck in his own trap
Pressure from China is not the only reason behind Pyongyang’s restrained behavior in recent years. Kim, arguably, is a victim of his own success.
He has upgraded the weapons of mass destruction programs that make his country relevant in international society. However, these assets, developed at colossal economic and political cost, have failed to lead North Korea out of international isolation. Nor have they earned it sanctions relief.
Soon after his major WOMD tests in late 2017, Kim won North Korea’s first-ever direct negotiations with a sitting US president in 2018. But the following year, the distrust dividing the two nations came to a head. Negotiations fizzled.
As of now, there is little indication that Biden is keen to re-start what will inevitably be a tortuous negotiation process. Relatedly, Pyongyang’s relations with key US ally Seoul remain in a virtual freeze.
This leaves Kim isolated, sanctioned and likely facing a simmering undercurrent of domestic social and economic challenges resulting from harsh anti-Covid-19 measures.
His next move is unclear, for, having repeatedly shot his WOMD bolt, Kim is stuck in a strategic dead-end from which there is no clear exit.
“There is a growing consensus internationally that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state, so there a diminishing utility to provocations,” said Go. “North Korea has reached the level they wanted to be at, now they have to go to a new level.”