SEOUL: Thousands of maskless troops of North Korea defied the coronavirus threat with a giant military parade, presided over by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Saturday.
The nuclear-armed country was expected to showcase its latest and most advanced weapons in the parade.
State broadcaster KCTV showed company after company of armed soldiers marching through Kim Il Sung square in a night-time display, with Kim smiling and joking with his generals as he watched them.
Armoured vehicles were lined up in the streets of Pyongyang ready to follow them, and none of the participants or the audience lined up in the stands were wearing masks.
Kim — whose summit counterpart Donald Trump was recently hospitalised with the illness — wished “good health to all the people around the world who are fighting the ills of the evil virus”, although he did not name the US president or his country directly.
The pandemic has swept the world since first emerging in neighbouring China, with more than 36 million cases, but Kim closed the North’s borders in January to try to prevent contamination said it had not seen a single infection.
Women in the crowd wiped tears from their eyes as he spoke, footage broadcast on state media showed.
North Korean military parades normally climax with whatever missiles Pyongyang wants to highlight and are keenly watched by observers for clues to its weapons development.
According to Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff, the display actually took place in the early hours of Saturday, when they said in a statement that “signs of a military parade — involving equipment and people on a large scale — were detected at Kim Il Sung Square”.
South Korean and US intelligence agencies were “closely tracking the event”, they added.
‘Big step forward’
The North is widely believed to have pressed on with the development of its arsenal — which it says it needs to protect itself from a US invasion — throughout nuclear negotiations with Washington, deadlocked since the collapse of a summit in Hanoi early last year.
And Kim — wearing a grey suit — told the crowd Pyongyang “will continue to strengthen our military for self-defence and deterrence”.
“If you don’t have the strength, you’ll have to wipe away the tears and blood that flow with your two clenched fists,” he added.
The widely anticipated display was part of commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Analysts expected a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland to appear — maybe even one with multiple re-entry vehicle capabilities that could allow it to evade US defence systems.
The party anniversary meant North Korea “has a political and strategic need to do something bigger”, said Sung-yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University in the United States.
Showcasing its most advanced weapons “will signal a big step forward in Pyongyang’s credible threat capabilities”, he said.
But unlike on many previous occasions, no international media were allowed in to watch the parade.
And the few foreigners remaining in Pyongyang were not welcome at the commemorations, according to the Russian embassy, which posted a message from the authorities on its Facebook page urging diplomats and other international representatives not to “approach or take photos” of the venues.
At the end of December, Kim threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon”, but analysts say Pyongyang will still tread carefully to avoid jeopardising its chances with Washington ahead of next month’s presidential election.
Showing off its strategic weapons in a military parade “would be consistent with what Kim Jong Un promised”, said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee, while “not provoking the United States as much as a test-launch of a strategic weapon”.
Masks and missiles?
Kim is the third member of his family to lead the country. But in a possible signal of changing emphasis, the large-scale portraits of his grandfather, the North’s founder Kim Il Sung, and father Kim Jong Il have been removed from their positions on the rostrum in the square.
Instead smaller ones were installed further back and higher up on another building, the Grand People’s Study House.
The ruling party anniversary comes during a difficult year for North Korea as the coronavirus pandemic and recent storms add pressure to the heavily sanctioned country.
And Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest warned that with thousands of people involved, the parade could turn into a “deadly superspreader-like event” without “extreme precautions”.
The impoverished nation’s crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak, and he added: “Clearly, masks and missiles don’t mix.”