North Korea’s latest military show of strength could give clues to Kim Jong-un’s attitude towards Trump denuclearisation deal
Choice of weapons to show off at state’s 70th anniversary celebrations could give clues to the regime’s commitment to reaching a deal with the US
North Korea is poised to showcase its latest military developments on the 70th anniversary of the nation’s founding on Sunday, with final preparations under way for a large-scale military parade.
The event this year has particular meaning for the country’s leader Kim Jong-un as it comes after the reclusive regime announced the completion of its nuclear programme and talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled.
Kim agreed to denuclearisation during his summit with US President Donald Trump in June, without resolving the vexed question of what this would entail. Observers said the decision on whether to showcase weapons that could threaten the US mainland this weekend could offer some indication about how committed Kim is to this process.
Satellite images released by monitoring group 38 North this week showed North Korean troops have been practising for weeks around Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square.
The images suggest there were about 43 groups of troops and personnel practising in a replica of the square.
The satellites also indicate that the authorities have set up the largest number of pre-parade equipment storage shelters since Kim came to power, indicating Sunday’s parade may be on a larger scale than other recent spectacles.
“The North also tends to attach significant meanings to its national events every decade. For the 70th anniversary of the North Korean state, the Kim regime may want to demonstrate that the country is a strong and developed country both to a domestic and international audience,” Gu Gab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said.
“Besides, North Korea may also want to further solidify the Kim regime and its legitimacy through the military event.”
North Korean media described the event, which will see an estimated 10,000 soldiers marching through the capital, as “great festival for a celebration of victory”, calling for the people’s full attention and participation.
Military parades have always been Pyongyang’s favourite stage for showing off its military capabilities to the international community.
New weapons including missiles, armoured vehicles and aircraft have often featured in parades in the past.
In October 2015, at the parade marking the 70th anniversary of the North Korean Workers’ Party, the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile was unveiled.
The mid-range ballistic missile Hwasong-12 and the new Scud-ER missile were unveiled in April 2017 during the annual celebrations of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the state.
In a further demonstration of Pyongyang’s military capabilities, the upgraded intercontinental ballistic missiles Hwasong-14 and 15 were unveiled at a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the army in February this year.
In April, North Korea announced it would shift its focus to developing its economy as it had successfully completed its nuclear programme.
The military hardware to be showcased on Sunday may provide further signals as to how the country views its future development and Kim’s sincerity about denuclearisation.
Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Washington was concerned about Pyongyang’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
Pyongyang started testing them in 2014 and paraded six “fully developed” Bukgeukseong-1 SLBMs last year.
The demonstration of North Korea’s capability to employ a sea-based nuclear deterrent amplified Washington’s concerns about the threat it posed to US national security.
“The US concerns about North Korea are centred on Pyongyang’s [nuclear] delivery technology as it has direct implications for its national security. An SLBM launch cannot be pre-detected, which gives Pyongyang a full nuclear deterrence capability,” Boo said.
Observers said Washington would be watching to see if Pyongyang would continue to show off its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities on Sunday.
The Hwasong-15, which was tested in November and has an operational range of about 13,000km (8,000 miles), made its debut at the parade in February.
According to South Korean diplomatic sources, it is the threat of Hwasong-15 along with other ICBMs that made Trump push his North Korean counterpart to close down its ICBM facilities at their historic summit in Singapore on June 12.
Sources said upgraded aerial drones may be the next set of weapons that North Korea unveils during Sunday’s parade.
The drones would be of less immediate concern to the US because they are not capable of reaching the US mainland. However, a suspected drone, carrying a Sony-made camera crashed, that on a mountain near the heavily fortified inter-Korean border last year was suspected on spying on US missile defence systems.
Pyongyang first showed off its attack drones during a military parade in 2013.
The United Nation estimates that the reclusive state has as many as 300 drones, some of which can fly high and remain undetected over a range of hundreds of miles.
According to South Korean military sources, Pyongyang has also allocated some of its resources to developing sophisticated drones with advance weapon-loading capabilities.