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North Korea marks 70th anniversary with carefully calibrated parade

On much-anticipated day, Kim Jong-un refrains from displaying long-range missiles, welcomes Chinese parliamentary head – and earns Trump tweet

September 10, 2018 2:37 AM (UTC+8)
Tanks take part in a military parade in Pyongyang on September 9. Photo: AFP

Tens of thousands of citizens lined the streets as a military parade featuring armored vehicles, heavy artillery, missiles and thousands of goose-stepping troops rolled regally across Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square Sunday as the country celebrated its 70th anniversary in style.

Yet despite the impressive hardware and manpower that was rolled out, the brilliantly synchronized event seemed more about diplomacy than firepower – and earned the plaudits of none other than US President Donald Trump.

According to footage broadcast from the scene by international TV news crews, no Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles were on display – a concession almost certainly aimed at the United States.

Moreover, Li Zhanshu, a member of China’s Politbureau Standing Committee and, as the country’s parliamentary head, widely seen as the number three player in the Chinese Communist Party, joined North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in reviewing the parade. The two held their hands high, suggesting strongly rejuvenated ties between the two countries.

Also on Sunday, as part of the national day celebrations, Pyongyang resurrected its famed Mass Games performance. This spectacle of human art, in which thousands of carefully drilled performers hold up colored placards that, in combination, create a series of shifting images, is a flagship specialty of North Korea. It blends art with mass engagement and propaganda messaging.

The last mass games took place five years ago.

Somewhat bizarrely, another international visitor on hand was famed French actor Gerard Depardieu, who was spotted by Agence France-Press reporters in a Pyongyang hotel. The reason for the thespian’s presence is unknown; he reportedly refused to speak to journalists.

Diplomatic messages: US and South Korea

The non-provocative nature of the display earned a tweet from Trump, who called it a “big and very positive statement from North Korea.” Trump added: “Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other! Much better than before I took office.”

Despite no agreement yet between Pyongyang and Washington on the denuclearization process the two agreed to at their landmark Singapore summit in June, and with Pyongyang demanding the US agree to a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War, there have, over the last week, been some encouraging signals.

Kim said he would denuclearize before US President Donald Trump’s term expires, and expressed “unwavering trust” in Trump

Sunday’s parade came just days after a high-level South Korean delegation had returned from a meeting with Kim in Pyongyang. During their meeting, Kim said he would denuclearize before US President Donald Trump’s term expires, and expressed “unwavering trust” in Trump, according to Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s National Security Adviser, who headed the group of Seoul’s envoys.

That evoked a complimentary tweet from Trump who wrote: Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

Moon, who has stated his intention of acting as an intermediary between Trump and Kim, will meet the latter in Pyongyang over September 18-20  for what will be their third summit, with the goal being to set out the details of the deep-frozen denuclearization process. Moon is then expected to meet Trump at the UN General Assembly later this month for in-depth discussions on the direction of the denuclearization and peninsula peace-building process.

Diplomatic re-engagement: China

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s parade, there had been speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping might attend on the day. Such a high-level visitor – Xi has never visited Pyongyang – would have been a hugely symbolic win for North Korea. There had also been intense speculation in Chinese media that he would be accompanied by an honor guard of People’s Liberation Army troops.

On the day, however, neither transpired.

Before this year, the “blood-forged” alliance between Korean War allies China and North Korea had been looking shaky. Soon after assuming power, Kim executed his uncle, long-time regime player Jang Song-taek, who maintained close ties with Beijing. And as North Korea continued to defy the international community with both missile and nuclear tests, China’s anger became evident as it both supported and implemented international sanctions against its client state.

Yet this year, following Kim’s multi-polar charm offensive – which some pundits believe is a desperate strategy to break out of his international isolation, while others believe it is a a natural progression now that he has essentially finalized his nuclear deterrent –  Kim and Xi have met three times. All the meetings have taken place on Chinese soil, indicating that it is Xi who holds the whiphand – or wants to maintain the appearance of doing so.

Shifting national focus?

Kim Jong-un did not deliver a public message on the day; that duty fell to the titular head of state, Kim Yong Nam (no relation), who heads North Korea’s parliament. His speech focused largely on the regime’s achievement of military power and its focus on economic development, according to news reports.

For international consumption at least, Kim Jong-un’s flagship “Byungjin” policy line, which focused on joint development of the economy and strategic weapons, has been watered down, with the focus now shifting to economic progress and downplaying the arms.

North Korea was founded in 1948, after the peninsula had been divided by great power fiat at the end of World War II, prior to which it was a Japanese colony.

Its first ruler was Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader, and the man who launched the Korean War in 1950. The first of the three Kims was best known, after the war, for his “juche” or self-reliance philosophy.

The nation’s second ruler was his son, Kim Jong-il, who steered the country through the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism, and a series of devastating famines in the 1990s. He also oversaw the country’s first successful nuclear test in 2006. His core policy line was “Songeun,” or military first.

Kim Jong-un took over as the third in the Kim line after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il in 2011. While his current focus is on international diplomacy and domestic economic development, he commands both a nuclear arsenal and an intercontinental ballistic missile force. These assets, combined, provide him with a deterrent that neither his father or grandfather could boast.

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