'Defiant message' as North Korea's Kim Jong Un rides white horse on sacred mountain

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un riding alone on a large white horse through snowy fields and woods on Mount Paektu, the spiritual homeland of the Kim dynasty. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Aides to Mr Kim Jong Un are convinced the North Korean leader plans "a great operation", state media said on Wednesday (Oct 16) in a report that included lavish descriptions and images of the leader riding a white horse up North Korea's most sacred mountain.

In the photos released by state news agency KCNA, Mr Kim is seen riding alone on a large white horse through snowy fields and woods on Mount Paektu, the spiritual homeland of the Kim dynasty.

"His march on horseback in Mount Paektu is a great event of weighty importance in the history of the Korean revolution," KCNA said.

"Having witnessed the great moments of his thinking atop Mount Paektu, all the officials accompanying him were convinced with overflowing emotion and joy that there will be a great operation to strike the world with wonder again and make a step forward in the Korean revolution."

It was unclear what the operation might involve, but Mr Kim has often made trips to the sacred mountain at times of major policy endeavours.

Analysts say the symbolism underscores North Korea standing up to international sanctions and pressure over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

"This is a statement, symbolic of defiance," said Mr Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.

"The pursuit of sanctions relief is over. Nothing is made explicit here, but it starts to set new expectations about the coming course of policy for 2020."

In late 2017, Mr Kim visited Mount Paektu days after North Korea launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and weeks before he made a key New Year's speech in which he opened the door to engagement with South Korea.

Last year, Mr Kim took South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the top of the mountain as part of a historic summit.

Since then relations have cooled and Mr Kim has said he will wait only until the end of the year for the United States to soften its stance in denuclearisation negotiations before North Korea pursues an unspecified new path forward.

Several experts said much of the rhetoric in the KCNA report revolves around the economy, and they suspect North Korea may soon conduct a space launch.

That would enable the North to show of its economic and technological power in a less provocative way than by testing an ICBM.

The language in Wednesday's state media report suggests Mr Kim may be "contemplating some major policy decisions", said Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.

"The report in Korean has characterised Kim's climb up to Mount Paektu on horseback as a new 'myth', and that, together with the images of him on a white horse, appear to have been designed to create maximum propaganda effect, which I believe media will play up in the days to come," Ms Lee said.

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