North Korea puts hazmat suits on parade for national day, but no missiles

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea celebrated the 73rd anniversary of its foundation with a night time military parade in the capital, state media reported on Thursday (Sept 9), publishing photographs of marching rows of personnel in orange hazmat suits but no ballistic missiles.

Kim Jong Un, the leader of the reclusive state, attended the event as paramilitary and public security forces of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards, the country’s largest civilian defence force, began marching in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung square at midnight Wednesday, the official KCNA news agency said.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Worker’s Party’s newspaper, published photographs of people in orange hazmat suits with medical-grade masks in an apparent symbol of anti-coronavirus efforts, and troops holding rifles marching together.

Some conventional weapons were also on display, including multiple rocket launchers and tractors carrying anti-tank missiles.

But no ballistic missiles were seen or mentioned in the reports, and Kim did not deliver any speech, unlike last October when he boasted of the country’s nuclear capabilities and showcased previously unseen intercontinental ballistic missiles during a pre-dawn military parade.

“The columns of emergency epidemic prevention and the Ministry of Public Health were full of patriotic enthusiasm to display the advantages of the socialist system all over the world, while firmly protecting the security of the country and its people from the worldwide pandemic,” the KCNA said.

North Korea has not confirmed any Covid-19 cases, but closed borders and imposed strict prevention measures, seeing the pandemic as a matter of national survival.

It was the first time since 2013 that North Korea staged a parade with the 5.7 million strong Worker-Peasant Red Guards, launched as reserve forces after the exit of Chinese forces who fought for the North in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the perceived absence of strategic weapons and the focus on public security forces showed Mr Kim is focused on domestic issues such as Covid-19 and the economy

“The parade seems to be strictly designed as a domestic festival aimed at promoting national unity and solidarity of the regime,” Mr Yang said.

“There were no nuclear weapons and Mr Kim didn’t give a message while being there, which could be meant to keep the event low-key and leave room for manoeuvre for future talks with the United States and South Korea.” Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals have stalled since 2019.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has said it will explore diplomacy to achieve North Korean denuclearisation, but has shown no willingness to meet North Korean demands for an easing of sanctions.

A reactivation of inter-Korean hotlines in July raised hopes for a restart of the denuclearisation talks. But the North stopped answering the calls as South Korea and the United States held their annual military exercises last month, which Pyongyang has warned could trigger a security crisis.

The last North Korean military parade came just before Mr Biden was inaugurated in January and showed off the latest developments in quick-strike, solid-fuel missiles that have been developed under Mr Kim’s leadership. 

North Korea typically broadcasts the parades several hours after it edits the images of its weapons that will be closely watched by experts around the world. It also edits the video to increase the production value of the programming for the state’s propaganda machine as it tries to enhance Mr Kim’s image at home as a powerful and caring leader.

At the October 2020 parade to mark the anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, North Korea rolled out what experts said was the state’s largest display of new weaponry under Mr Kim, including what they described as the world’s biggest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

The so-far-untested missile could allow North Korea to pack multiple atomic weapons on a single rocket to attack the US, experts said. 

Ms Melissa Hanham, a non-proliferation expert and an affiliate with the Stanford Centre for International Security and Cooperation, said if missiles were part of the display, weapons analysts would be looking for any changes in design for the ICBM that could indicate problems the state is trying to fix. 

“For us, we want to know as much as possible about the engine, so we can estimate how far it will go, as well as the tip of the missile or payload where one, or in a worse case scenario, multiple warheads could be held,” she said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping showed his support for the long-time ally, sending a message of congratulations to Mr Kim on the anniversary of the government’s founding and expressing confidence in the state’s future development under Mr Kim’s leadership, China’s state television reported. 

China is North Korea’s biggest benefactor, for years providing a lifeline that helped keep its neighbour’s struggling economy afloat. The Biden administration has told Beijing that it is in its own self-interest to get Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.   

Mr Kim is struggling with an economy that has only gotten smaller since he took power about a decade ago in large part from sanctions to punish him for tests of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver warheads. But the North Korean leader has so far shown no interest in sitting down with the Biden administration, which has said it is open for discussions and indicated it could offer economic incentives in exchange for disarmament steps.

Mr Kim has staged his recent military parades at night to increase the dramatic effect of the events that have been a staple of the state for decades. The last two versions included stunts like LED lighting on jet fighters flying by and drone shots following thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marching through the main square in Pyongyang.