Speculation is building that North Korea will unveil its latest weaponry at a huge parade this weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ party.
The event, which will be keenly watched for signs of improvements in the regime’s nuclear and missile capabilities, is expected to be the biggest of its kind in the country’s history.
According to 38 North, a website that monitors North Korea, recent satellite images suggest the parade will feature thousands of goose-stepping troops, watched by their leader, Kim Jong-un.
They will be followed by tanks and armoured vehicles, but interest will be focused on the spectacle’s climax, when Kim could send a strong message to Washington by unveiling new long-range missiles capable of striking the US mainland.
But North Korea watchers say Kim will have to tread a fine line between reminding the US that he has overseen improvements in the regime’s missile capability, despite international sanctions, and leaving the door open for the resumption of denuclearisation talks.
Harry Kazianis, a Korea expert at the Center for National Interest, said Saturday’s parade would be Kim’s chance to show off “some of the world’s most powerful weapons once reserved for superpowers, even under massive international sanctions”.
He added: “While such a display of power surely is concerning, this will not spark a strong reaction from Washington — if any at all. The Trump administration has made it clear what the red lines are with North Korea: intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM] and nuclear tests, not public displays.”
Nuclear talks between Kim and Donald Trump have been deadlocked since their summit in Hanoi of 2019 ended without agreement. A resumption looks unlikely until the two sides find common ground over Pyongyang’s demand for sanctions relief and calls by Washington for progress on denuclearisation.
In his New Year’s address Kim said he would unveil a “new strategic weapon”, and analysts believe the parade could include a new solid-fuelled ICBM, a missile with multiple warheads, an upgraded submarine-launched ballistic missile or a sophisticated missile launcher.
Some experts say any signs that the regime has perfected solid fuel missile technology would cause concern in Washington, since they do not need to be refuelled and so are much harder to detect and destroy.
But North Korea is unlikely to mark the party’s anniversary with a missile launch – a move that would risk sinking any hopes of resurrecting a dialogue between Kim and Trump – or Joe Biden.
“Showing [a missile] in the parade rather than testing it would be a non-provocative way of showcasing it,” said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center.
The anniversary comes at a time of uncertainty for North Korea and its leader.
Kim, whose health was the subject of wild speculation earlier this year, has since had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic – although North Korea continues to claim it has not recorded a single case – natural disasters and an economy battered by sanctions and a sharp drop in trade with China.
“Kim’s people are considerably wearied and his economy is in trouble … so he would want to mobilise his people and stress a self-reliant policy to quell their complaints and draw their loyalty,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “To do so he would need new weapons, powerful weapons that would send a message to the entire world.”
Agencies contributed to this report.