North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned Saturday that his country would “fully mobilize” its nuclear force if threatened, as he took centre stage at a military parade in which the country unveiled what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile and other additions to its growing arsenal.
Kim, however, avoided direct criticism of Washington during the event, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the country’s ruling party and took place less than four weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Instead, he focused on a domestic message urging his people to remain firm in the face of “tremendous challenges” posed by the coronavirus pandemic and crippling U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program.
Kim described the country’s continuing efforts to develop its nuclear arsenal as necessary for its defence and said it wasn’t targeting any specific country with its military force.
But “if any force harms the safety of our nation, we will fully mobilize the strongest offensive might in a pre-emptive manner to punish them,” he said.
His speech was punctuated by thousands of goose-stepping troops, tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers and a broad range of ballistic missiles rolled out in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square.
The weapons included what was possibly North Korea’s largest ICBM, which was mounted on an 11-axle launch vehicle that was also seen for the first time, and a presumptive new solid-fuel weapon that could be an advanced version of a North Korean missile designed to be fired from submarines.
They highlighted how the North has continued to expand its military capabilities amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, which prompted Kim to pledge in December that he would continue to bolster his nuclear arsenal amid “gangster-like” U.S. pressure and soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world.”
Call for denuclearization talks
A senior U.S. administration official called North Korea’s display at the parade “disappointing” and called on the government to negotiate to achieve a complete denuclearization.
Analysts said the missile would be one of the largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world if it becomes operational.
“It is disappointing to see the DPRK continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program over working toward a brighter future for the North Korean people,” the official said. “The United States … calls on the DPRK to engage in sustained and substantive negotiations to achieve complete denuclearization.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had said early Saturday that there were signs that the North had mobilized “large crowds and equipment” for a military parade at Kim Il-sung Square during the early morning hours. In the evening, North Korean state television began airing a taped broadcast of the event, which began late Friday.
Troops were seen marching in the streets in front of the brightly illuminated square, as a military band performed while moving in formation, shaping “10.10,” “1945,” and “2020” in honour of the party anniversary.
The performers and tens of thousands of spectators roared as Kim, dressed in a grey suit and tie, appeared from a building as the clock struck midnight. Kim, flanked with senior officials and smiling widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on a balcony.
During his speech, Kim repeatedly thanked his “great people” for overcoming “unexpected” burdens and thoroughly abiding by the anti-virus measures imposed by the ruling party and government to keep the country COVID-19-free, a claim that has been widely questioned by outside observers.
He also extended an olive branch to rival South Korea, expressing hope that the countries could repair bilateral ties once the threat of the pandemic is over. The North had suspended virtually all co-operation with the South amid the stalemate in larger nuclear negotiations with the United States.
This year’s anniversary comes amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration and deepening economic woes that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim’s leadership since he took power in 2011.
But many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the U.S. presidential election, as a change in U.S. administrations could force the country to recalibrate its approach toward Washington and Seoul.
Authoritarian North Korea is keen about anniversaries, and this week’s festivities were earmarked for years in advance as a major event to glorify Kim Jong-un’s achievements as leader.
But there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately as Kim struggles to keep afloat an economy crippled by years of stringent U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear program and ravaged further this year by border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating summer floods and typhoons that will likely worsen chronic food shortages.
The problems, combined with North Korea’s depleting foreign currency reserves, are possibly setting conditions for a “perfect storm” that shocks food prices and exchange rates and triggers economic panic in the coming months, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy.
That would compound the political burden on Kim, who during a political conference in August showed unusual candour by acknowledging that his economic plans aren’t succeeding.
Kim and President Donald Trump have met three times since embarking on high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018 as the North Korean leader attempted to leverage his nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security benefits. But talks have faltered over disagreements on disarmament steps and the removal of sanctions imposed on the North.