North Korea held a military parade on midnight on Thursday, September 9, to mark the 73rd anniversary of the nation’s foundation. Even though the country has been suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic since early last year, it was the third military parade North Korea has held in a year.
According to satellite imagery and sources from media and research institutions, it was expected that the North would hold the parade on Thursday at midnight. However, the North did not introduce new weapons in the military parade, a break from recent practice.
With no new missiles to make headlines, one of the most eye-catching parts in the parade was the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s slimmer appearance. After taking power in 2011, Kim intentionally put on weight to look like his grandfather, the founder of the country. However, Kim Jong Un has lost a considerable amount of weight since he admitted that his five-year economic plan failed “tremendously” in his opening speech to the Workers’ Party Congress in January. His considerably slimmed-down appearance has been made obvious through to North Koreans that their leader is also suffering from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader, has disappeared from the front line in recent major events, including yesterday’s military parade. Given Kim Yo Jong’s frequent role in delivering belligerent messages to South Korea and the United States, her literal back-seating is a signal that the country is now focusing on domestic affairs.
About two weeks ago, media and research institutions announced evidence that North Korea’s main nuclear site, the Yongbyon nuclear complex, had been reactivated. The restart of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor indicates that Pyongyang is almost out of patience for the stalled negotiations with the United States. Instead, North Korea has started signaling a renewed turn toward strengthening and advancing its nuclear and missile programs to entice U.S. concessions.
In addition, South Korea successfully conducted ejection tests of a submarine-launched ballistic missile from the Dosan Ahn Changho submarine last week after the South Korean Defense Ministry announced its plan to develop military capabilities to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula. In that context, yesterday’s military parade could have jumpstarted an “arms race” on the Korean Peninsula if the North introduced its own new advanced weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
However, North Korea’s regular army did not appear with new weapons – which was odd, compared to past parades. Potentially related is the fact that civilians and celebrities wearing uniforms participated in the event. This unusual military parade seems to have been a political event designed to manage North Koreans’ concerns and fears over domestic affairs – especially economic crisis. Also, the North may have decided it did not need to take more actions to provoke Washington and Seoul in yesterday’s parade, as Pyongyang has already held two military parades in a year and reactivated the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
Since the pandemic erupted in early 2020 in neighboring China, North Korea has shut down its borders. As the country has no sufficient medical facilities and resources to grapple with the pandemic, its leaders decided their only option was to take extreme measures to prevent COVID-19 from arriving in the first place. Considering the country’s economic status, which is highly dependent on trade with China, it was inevitable that the border closures would mean the North is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. Some experts are calling the current crisis “the next Arduous March,” referring to the period from 1994 to 1999, when as many as 3 million people died due to a severe food shortage and economic crisis.
Washington and Seoul have repeatedly sent messages to Pyongyang that they are willing to provide humanitarian assistance if requested. However, Pyongyang has not responded to their messages, nor has it agreed to receive COVID-19 vaccines from the United Nations.
“In celebrating a less significant political anniversary than other recent parades, the purpose [of Thursday’s parade] was not to set a new national trajectory but to reassure citizens that the state will overcome natural disasters and pandemic-related challenges,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, in an interview with The Diplomat.
Some experts theorized that North Korea did not display any new advanced missiles during the parade in order to leave space to renew dialogue with the United States – in essence, a strategic diplomatic move. However, Easley said the parade had little to do with North Korea’s international negotiating position and more to do with domestic politics.
The North’s basic motivation for yesterday’s military parade was to encourage North Koreans, who have borne the brunt of an economic crisis amid the pandemic, exacerbated by natural disasters, for over 18 months now. However, the parade was also meant to shape the thoughts and loyalty of young North Koreans toward Kim’s regime and Pyongyang leadership. Several weeks ago, North Korean authorities warned the young generation against aberrations such as watching K-dramas or using South Korean buzzwords.
Even though North Korea held the military parade on Thursday, it is too soon to breathe a sigh of relief over the lack of new weapons. Pyongyang could hold another military parade next month to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party foundation.
“An ominous direct message to Washington will come when Kim Jong Un chooses the time is ripe,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, in an interview with The Diplomat. “I’d say we are quite close to that ripe time, with the Biden administration reeling from the Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco,” he added.
“As big on anniversaries as Pyongyang is, October 10 – Party Founding Day – may be the occasion,” Lee said, pointing out that North Korea’s first nuclear test came on October 9, 2006.
According to Lee, Kim may raise the stakes by provoking the Biden administration with “a major weapons test” this fall, with either October 10 or “November 29, the fourth anniversary of the biggest ICBM test to date” as potential dates. Then, Lee theorized, Kim might send his sister to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February for another round of diplomacy outreach.
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 was a key turning point for the two Koreas to rebuild inter-Korean relations and built momentum for eventual summit meetings. Likewise, the Beijing Olympics can be another chance for not only the United States and South Korea, but also China and Russia to seek multilateral cooperation to tackle the denuclearization of the North.
The International Olympics Committee just announced that North Korea is banned from participating in the Beijing Winter Games, as punishment for refusing to attend the Tokyo Olympic Games held this summer. However, Lee does not that decision is a real obstacle. He predicted that the IOC would be pleased to make an exception and grant waivers in the “Olympic spirit” of participation if host Beijing and other parties wish it.