North Korea draws focus as it prepares for major military parade

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SEOUL, Oct. 9 (UPI) — As North Korea prepares for a major military parade on Saturday for the 75th anniversary of its Workers’ Party, observers will be watching the secretive regime for messages to the outside world — including whether Pyongyang will use the event to show off new weapons.

North Korea has a history of marking major anniversaries with missile launches and parades featuring its latest weapons — and speculation is rife that Pyongyang will unveil fresh military hardware Saturday, such as a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.

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South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said during a session with parliament this week that North Korea is “expected to engage in a show of force involving strategic weapons” at the parade.

Analysts have suggested that the North could be ready to show off a solid-fuel ICBM, which would be easier to transport and quicker to fire than the country’s current liquid-fuel version.

South Korean officials have also indicated that North Korea could test a submarine-launched ballistic missile around the anniversary date.

At the end of 2019, Kim threatened to demonstrate a “new strategic weapon,” but did not specify what form it would take.

Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that parading an ICBM would be a low-intensity “reminder” for Washington, especially in this election season.

Go noted that if Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden wins the U.S. election, Pyongyang would expect Washington to revert to Obama-era policies of “strategic patience” rather than the direct engagement Kim Jong Un has had with President Donald Trump.

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“North Korea will have to send a message, and the message will be that the U.S. and Biden has to put North Korea on the top of its foreign policy priorities,” he said. “If they show an ICBM, it’s a good way to bring the attention back.”

Go added that unveiling a new ICBM, especially one that North Korea claims is solid-fuel, would necessitate a test launch at some point.

“If they show the ICBM, it’s essentially a prequel to a much bigger event coming online later, which is the test itself,” he said. “And that test will probably happen after November. Especially if Biden is elected and before he takes office — that’s a window of opportunity for them.”

North Korea has not officially announced the parade, but commercial satellite imagery has revealed preparations for the event for several weeks.

In an analysis of imagery earlier this week, North Korea-focused website 38 North identified that a VIP viewing platform has been completed at Kim Il Sung Square in the center of Pyongyang, while the area around the square appears to have been cordoned off for security purposes. At a parade training ground, about 40 formations of troops were spotted, with dozens of coach buses and other vehicles parked nearby.

A show of weapons would also send a message of strength and determination to domestic audiences after a difficult year that saw North Korea straining under ongoing sanctions and the economic impact of COVID-19. The country closed its borders in January to prevent the spread of the virus, shutting off much of its vital trade with neighboring China.

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North Korea was also battered by a series of late-summer typhoons that caused flooding and major damage to buildings, roads and crops.

On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged the “unprecedentedly grave trials and difficulties this year,” and called for an 80-day “all-out campaign” to meet economic and development goals ahead of the next major party congress in January.

The parade and other events to mark the 75th anniversary represent “a bid to consolidate unity and close ranks behind the party,” South Korea’s unification ministry wrote in a report to parliament, news agency Yonhap reported Thursday.

The report added that North Korea would unveil new strategic weapons “to draw attention at a time when its economic achievements have been sluggish.”

NK News senior analytic correspondent Colin Zwirko pointed out that beyond the military parade, North Korea is also preparing to hold several other large-scale events this weekend geared entirely toward the domestic audience, including mass athletic games and a torchlight march.

“It’s first and foremost a domestic show,” he said. “They’re doing so many events there, and they’re putting themselves at risk, frankly, with regards to COVID-19 by putting on a lot of events that are all just domestic focus. They need a win. It’s been a challenging year.”

North Korea claims to have had no cases of COVID-19. However, the country has only tested roughly 3,400 people in a country of 25 million, the World Health Organization reported recently.

Washington and Seoul will also be watching closely for any signals Pyongyang is sending about diplomatic relationships that have frozen over since a period of détente in 2018 and 2019.

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Nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled since a summit with Kim Jong Un and Trump held in Hanoi, Vietnam, last year failed to produce an agreement.

Inter-Korean relations have also been strained, with North Korea cutting off all communications with the South and blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in June. Last month, North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean fisheries official who had floated across the maritime boundary, prompting a rare apology from the North Korean leader.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in reiterated a call he made at the U.N. General Assembly last month to bring an official end to the Korean War.

“The end-of-war declaration will indeed pave the way for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon told the New York-based Korea Society in an online speech. Fighting in the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with a cease-fire agreement, but no peace treaty was ever signed.

“There has been substantive progress made in peace process on the Korean Peninsula thanks to the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summit meetings in 2018 and 2019,” Moon said. “We can neither allow any backtracking on hard-earned progress nor change our destination.”