North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was natty in a light gray suit, smiling broadly as he greeted red-scarfed Young Pioneers high on the reviewing stand before thousands of his subjects summoned at midnight for a parade marking the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Thursday.
Beneath the forced gaiety, however, was an obvious reality. Economic duress, poverty, and hunger had to take priority while his vaunted missiles, so proudly shown off at the last big military parade in January, remained in storage. Instead, old artillery pieces and armored vehicles trundled by, accompanied by high-stepping troops as the crowds cheered in unison, on command.
But Kim’s appearance at the parade also may have conveyed an upbeat message. Contrary to so many negative reports over the years about his weight and health, he did look fine in the photos. His weight was down, which may have been one reason for him to show up conspicuously while saying nothing beyond a few words of greeting.
Instead of listening to rhetoric, citizens had to read the state media for inspiration. “Our Republic is a valuable crystal of the people-first idea and guidance of the peerlessly great men,” effused Rodong Sinmun, the party paper. “The cause of building a socialist state centered on the popular masses has entered a new stage of its development under the guidance of the respected Comrade Kim Jong Un.”
The blitz of verbiage scarcely hid the strangeness of the parade, including the insistence on holding it at midnight rather than upsetting a skeptical populace by staging the spectacle in daylight hours.
The masses, as Kim himself has made publicly plain in a series of speeches before the politburo and party congress, are far more concerned about getting their next bowl of rice than hearing about nukes and missiles.
The mass craving for food is “tense,” Kim acknowledged at the latest politburo meeting, conjuring memories of the great famine of the mid-1990s when as many as two million died of hunger and disease in the worst period of the country’s history since the Korean War.
“Yes, one of the purposes of North Korean military parades is to divert the elite and public attention from the North’s internal problems,” Bruce Bennett, North Korea expert at the Rand Corporation, told The Daily Beast. Bennett cited “a lack of food and consumer goods, corruption, and brutal Kim purges.” Always, he said, Kim must “create the perception that the North is superior to the South and would thus be able to dominate the South at some point in the not-too-distant future.”
The bizarre nature of this parade, said Bennett, suggests Kim is also conveying another message, telling the North’s elites, “We are getting there”—albeit “not yet.”
Despite pervasive economic duress, North Korea still is not reporting the spread of COVID-19 that Kim still claims has not killed or even stricken any of his people. Marchers clad in protective gear, from masked faces to white footgear, belied the impression that his country, from which most foreigners, including diplomats and UN people, have fled in recent months, was not deeply concerned about the pandemic.
But while shutting borders and refraining from ordering missile tests, Kim has been able to conduct at least some business as usual.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reports the reactor at the main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, is again humming away, presumably fabricating more nuclear warheads. North Korea is believed to have about 60 warheads but has not tested a nuke since Kim ordered the sixth underground test in September 2017.
Climate change, as Kim made clear in his remarks to the top echelons of the party, over which he reigns as chairman, is clearly taking its toll, as seen in the twin menaces of floods and drought on top of erosion and crop failures. North Korea, like the rest of the world, is “vulnerable.”
One reason Kim has not displayed his galaxy of missiles may be that South Korea has beaten North Korea to the draw in conducting its first test of an SLBM, submarine-launched ballistic missile. One SLBM was dragged through Pyongyang aboard a massive Chinese-made vehicle at the North’s parade in January, but North Korea watchers are still waiting for the North to test the darn thing.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported three days ago that the South’s Agency for Defense Development had test-fired an SLBM from a 3,000-ton submarine. “After a round of additional tests, the SLBM will be mass-produced for deployment,” said Yonhap, making the South “the eighth country in the world to develop an SLBM after the United States, Russia, Britain, France, India, China, and North Korea.”
Evans Revere, a former senior diplomat at the American embassy in Seoul, called the South Korean SLBM test “the most interesting missile-related development on the peninsula recently.”
That test, he said, “was a useful reminder to Pyongyang that two can play this game and that Seoul is prepared to take major steps to defend itself against the North’s nuclear and missile threats.” It was “a welcome and unusual change of pace from the Moon administration’s policy of offering Pyongyang nothing but starry-eyed calls for dialogue and engagement—which Pyongyang has treated with contempt.”