TOKYO — North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of its foundation Sunday with a parade featuring goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and military hardware, but notably did not show off the intercontinental ballistic missiles that are believed to be capable of reaching the United States, according to reporters at the scene.
The parade was more low key than a previous parade staged in February before the Winter Olympics began in South Korea, according to reporters at the scene, and even more so than one held in April 2017, when a parade featuring an array of ballistic missiles exacerbated tensions with the United States.
Nearly half of the parade was dedicated to civilian efforts to boost the economy, the Associated Press reported, underscoring a major policy shift announced by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, earlier this year to focus on economic development.
The absence of nuclear-capable missile systems was also seen as a conciliatory gesture during a period of intense diplomatic outreach and negotiation.
“That choice alone suggests Kim’s intention to underline the seriousness of his ‘New Strategic Line,’ announced earlier this year that privileges the country’s economic betterment after the ‘completion’ of the country’s nuclear deterrent last year,” said Ankit Panda, a strategic expert and adjunct senior fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“It also suggests that as long as negotiations are on, North Korea’s nuclear-capable systems will maintain a low profile.”
The parade was staged to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the country is officially known, three years after the United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean Peninsula between them after the end of World War II.
It comes at a sensitive time as the United States and South Korea try to engage the North in a process they hope will eventually lead to it giving up its nuclear arsenal. But while South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is due in Pyongyang for a summit with his North Korean counterpart from Sept. 18 to 20, talks with the United States have hit a roadblock over who should make the next move.
Washington wants Pyongyang to move decisively toward dismantling its nuclear weapons program, but North Korea insists it first wants a declaration that the 1950-53 Korean War is over, as a way of helping guarantee its security and build trust.
Grace Liu, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said the low-key parade appeared to be aimed at maintaining a “relatively civil dialogue” with Seoul and Washington, especially given Moon’s impending visit next week.
“Overall, a scaled-down ‘non-escalatory’ parade assumes that they’re sticking with the plan to maintain talks with the United States and Republic of Korea,” she said. “Although trying to take the spotlight off of their nuclear program might mean that they’re confident that their nuclear capabilities are fulfilling their purpose of getting R.O.K./U.S. at the table.”
The war ended in an armistice but not a peace treaty. An end-of-war declaration would only be a first step toward an eventual peace treaty, but many in Washington fear such a declaration could be used to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. troop presence in South Korea.
The choice of Sept. 9 as the anniversary is largely arbitrary, experts say, since the country announced it had adopted a new constitution and unfurled its flag for the first time in July 1948.
There had been speculation that Chinese president Xi Jinping might make his first trip to Pyongyang for the parade, but in the end he sent Li Zhanzhu, the head of the National People’s Congress and one of seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo standing committee.
Li stood at Kim’s right during the parade, underlining the marked improvement in relations between the neighbors this year, with Kim traveling to China three times to meet Xi.
China’s president also sent a message expressing “the unshakable policy of the Chinese party and government to successfully defend, cement and develop the bilateral relations” between the two nations, according to Korean Central News Agency.
Later on Sunday, the celebrations will continue with the opening of what are known as North Korea’s Mass Games, a synchronized display of gymnastics and dance performed by tens of thousands of people working in unison. The games are being staged for the first time since 2013 and are officially called “Glorious Country” this year.