North Korea staged a military parade Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, but held back on showcasing its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), believed to be capable of targeting the United States.
The parade, which was considerably understated compared to previous years, comes against a background of stalled diplomatic talks with the US over the issue of denuclearization.
Experts speculated before the event that North Korea may choose not to display the country’s more advanced weaponry to avoid antagonizing US President Donald Trump.
The celebration saw dozens of military vehicles and goose-stepping soldiers parade past leader Kim Jong Un in the center of the capital, Pyongyang, as cheering crowds watched on.
Kim reviewed the procession from a balcony in Kim Il Sung Square, alongside other senior officials, including Li Zhanshu, a special envoy sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kim and Li locked hands and raised arms at the end of the event.
The parade was split into two sections, civilian and military. The military portion featured thousands of soldiers wearing uniforms from different periods of North Korea’s history, dating back from 1948 through to the present day.
The parade is the first show of military might in North Korea since Kim and Trump met in Singapore in June.
Though some of the artillery pieces on display featured anti-American slogans as in previous years, the theme of the parade appeared overwhelmingly focused on economic development and improving the lives of the North Korean people.
In a break from recent tradition, Kim did not speak at the event. The country’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, addressed the audience, telling soldiers to prepare simultaneously to fight a war but also be ready to battle for economic development.
“Compared to past parades they really pulled back on displaying missile systems,” said Dave Schmerler, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Kim has made 2018 a year of diplomacy, personally meeting with the leaders of China, South Korea and the United States for the first time since taking the reins of his country in 2011. Later this month, Kim will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a summit in Pyongyang, another event that could factor into the theme of Sunday’s festivities.
But negotiations between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs appear to have hit an impasse.
A little more than a month after Trump and Kim’s historic summit in Singapore, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told US lawmakers Pyongyang had shown little indication that it was moving toward denuclearization. That was followed by Pompeo canceling a planned trip to North Korea in August, citing insufficient progress on the part of North Korea.
In the run up to Sunday’s parade, both Washington and Pyongyang struck more of an upbeat note. South Korean officials who met with Kim last week said they were told by the young North Korean leader that he has “unwavering trust for President Trump.”
Trump responded by tweeting a thank you to Kim and declaring “we will get it done together!”
On Saturday, the US State Department said that Pompeo has received a letter from Kim for Trump, which the US President believes will be positive in tone.
Experts, however, caution against reading too much into any sense of optimism.
“The United States should not forget about North Korea’s arsenal simply because it’s kept out of sight,” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“Even as talks have ground to a halt, every indication is that research and development of nuclear capable systems is continuing.”
North Korea analysts are closely watching this weekend’s festivities, as Pyongyang is known to use mass events like these to convey its policy priorities and future intentions to average North Koreans and the rest of the world.
Journalists were invited to a concert Saturday night to kick off the celebration, an event dominated by songs and performances lionizing North Korea’s history. There was no mention of missiles or nuclear weapons.
Kim’s bodyguards appeared to show up at the event, but there was no sign of the young leader himself. Footage from North Korean state television appeared to show Kim greeting the Russian delegation Saturday night.
Sunday’s parade was kept under wraps until it was completed, with visiting journalists invited to the event prohibited from bringing phones or live broadcasting equipment to the procession.
It’s unclear why North Korea chose to bar reporters from broadcasting live from the event, though the delay allows Pyongyang’s propaganda officials to better control the images coming from the parade. Experts also believe it could be a security measure.
Pyongyang is also expected to host a revival of the highly choreographed performance known as the Mass Games for the first time in five years.
It’s not known when exactly the Games are due to take place, as North Korea did not provide visiting journalists with a schedule of events.
But the event is one of North Korea’s most well-known spectacles and typically involves up to 100,000 performers dancing and performing gymnastics together in unison. It’s a grandiose mix of performance art and North Korean propaganda which reflect the country’s socialist values.