North Korea to defy coronavirus with huge parade

Seoul (AFP) –


Nuclear-armed North Korea was expected to parade its latest and most advanced weapons through the streets of Pyongyang on Saturday, as the coronavirus-barricaded country celebrated the 75th anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un's ruling party.

South Korea's unification minister told parliament on Thursday that a "large-scale parade" was anticipated, and satellite imagery on the respected 38North website also suggested the cavalcade could be huge.

The anniversary 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.

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.

Nevertheless, thousands of goose-stepping soldiers were expected to pack into Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, named for North Korea's founder, under the gaze of his grandson, the third member of the family to rule the country.

A procession of progressively larger armoured vehicles and tanks was anticipated to follow, culminating with whatever missiles Pyongyang wanted to display.

- 'Big step forward' -

The events usually feature a speech by a dignitary, and the South's government detected signs that Kim was to address the crowd, Yonhap news agency reported Friday citing unnamed sources.

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 in February last year.

Now analysts expect 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.

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 are left in the city.

And foreigners were not welcome at the parade, 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 commemoration venues.

It appeared that state broadcaster KCTV would not show the event live -- when it has done so the programme has always begun by 10 am local time (0100 GMT).

The North's two most recent parades, both in 2018, were shown later the same day and the next morning.

A morning schedule announced by KCTV on Saturday included a documentary about Kim Il Sung titled "Our Dear Leader", a cartoon called "Boy General", and a programme on the North's waterfalls.

- Masks and missiles? -

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", while "not provoking the United States as much as a test-launch of a strategic weapon", said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee.

But Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest warned that with thousands of people 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."