Nuclear-armed North Korea appears to have held a giant military parade early Saturday, Seoul said, with Pyongyang’s latest and most advanced weapons expected to have been on show in the coronavirus-barricaded country’s capital.
The widely anticipated display is part of commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Such events typically feature thousands of troops goose-stepping through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, named for North Korea’s founder, under the gaze of his grandson Kim Jong Un, the third member of the family to rule the country.
A cavalcade of progressively larger armoured vehicles and tanks usually follows, culminating with whatever missiles Pyongyang wants to highlight.
They are keenly watched by observers for clues to its weapons development.
‘Signs of a military parade – involving equipment and people on a large scale – were detected at Kim Il Sung Square early this morning,’ Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement.
People bow before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu hill as the country marks the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in Pyongyang today
North Korea is believed to have held a military event this morning, according to intelligence chiefs in Seoul (Pictured: A military event in 2017)
A man watches television news broadcasting undated footage of a military parade showing North Korean soldiers and weapons, at a railway station in Seoul this morning
South Korean and US intelligence agencies were ‘closely tracking the event’, they added.
The parade is part of commemorations marking 75 years since the founding of Kim’s ruling party, an anniversary that comes during a difficult year for North Korea as the coronavirus pandemic and recent storms add pressure to the heavily sanctioned country.
Pyongyang closed its borders eight months ago to try to protect itself from the virus, which first emerged in neighbouring China, and has yet to confirm a single case.
People visit the Mansu Hill to lay flowers to the bronze statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea today
People arrive to pay their respects before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu hill, as the country marks the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, in Pyongyang today
Last month, troops from the North shot dead a South Korean fisheries official who had drifted into its waters, apparently as a precaution against the disease, prompting fury in Seoul and a rare apology from Kim.
The North is widely believed to have continued to develop its arsenal – which it says it needs to protect itself from a US invasion – throughout nuclear negotiations with Washington, deadlocked since the collapse of a summit in Hanoi early last year.
Analysts expected a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland to appear – maybe even one with multiple re-entry vehicle capabilities that could allow it to evade US defence systems.
In a file photo taken on October 10, 2015 students take part in a torch-lighting performance at Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang
In a file photo taken on July 27, 2013 a North Korean soldier salutes from a tank during a military parade past Kim Il-Sung square marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice in Pyongyang
In a file photo taken on September 9, 2018 participants wave flowers as they march during a mass rally on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang
The anniversary of the Workers’ Party means North Korea ‘has a political and strategic need to do something bigger’, said Sung-yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University in the United States.
Showcasing its most advanced weapons ‘will signal a big step forward in Pyongyang’s credible threat capabilities’, he said.
But unlike on many previous occasions, no international media were allowed in to watch the parade, and with many foreign embassies in Pyongyang closing their doors in the face of coronavirus restrictions, few outside observers were left in the city.
Foreigners were not welcome at the anniversary commemorations, according to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, which posted a message from the authorities on its Facebook page urging diplomats and other international representatives not to ‘approach or take photos’ of the venues.
North Korea was preparing to host a major parade with troops marching in tight formation (pictured rehearsing) – but experts warn it could turn into a coronavirus super-spreader event
Troops arrived in the capital by bus and were being housed in a large hotel, where Covid precautions are likely not being followed since the country denies having any cases
North Korea was expected to use the parade to show off its latest missiles, which are being kept under wraps at vehicle storage compounds such as this one in Pyongyang
State broadcaster KCTV did not show any early-morning parade live, and had not carried footage of it by mid-afternoon.
But specialist service NK News cited multiple sources saying they had heard sounds of aircraft flying by, drones and heavy machinery during the early hours of Saturday morning.
The North has usually held its parades in the morning and generally streams them in real time or near-live, although the last two, both in 2018, were shown either later that day or the next morning.
Former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee cautioned against interpreting the decision not broadcast it live ‘without knowing what was said and shown during the parade’.
The event will have attracted thousands of citizens to the capital (pictured above, tourist buses in Pyongyang), as experts warn it could help spread the virus
A major feature of the weekends’ celebrations is likely to be the unveiling of a major new hospital in Pyongyang, which workers are putting the finishing touches to
Kim was expected to use the event to show off his missiles including ICBMs – the ones capable of striking the US (pictured in 2017) – which he has not done since nuclear talks began with Trump in 2018
At the end of December, Kim threatened to demonstrate a ‘new strategic weapon’, but analysts say Pyongyang will still tread carefully to avoid jeopardising its chances with Washington ahead of next month’s presidential election.
Showing off its strategic weapons in a military parade ‘would be consistent with what Kim Jong Un promised’, said analyst Lee, while ‘not provoking the United States as much as a test-launch of a strategic weapon’.
But Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest warned that if thousands of people were involved, it could turn into a ‘deadly superspreader-like event’ unless ‘extreme precautions’ were used.
The impoverished nation’s crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak, and he added that such protective measures seemed ‘pretty unlikely’.
‘Clearly, masks and missiles don’t mix.’