As North Korea finishes preparations for a massive military parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Oct. 10, 1945 founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, experts expect the reclusive country will showcase vaunted “new strategic weapons” in what could be a signal to the United States ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.
Some North Korea watchers predict that leader Kim Jong Un will use the event to unveil—or even test—a new weapons capability he hinted at during his New Year’s Day national address this year in what would be an October Surprise.
But South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the expected display of military power would not only advertise strength to the outside world but also serve as a spectacle to gloss over economic difficulties brought on by the double pinch of the coronavirus pandemic and sanctions aimed at deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
Seoul’s Unification Minister Lee In-young said Thursday at a parliamentary audit that unlike in previous years, Pyongyang will likely perform “low-intensity” acts to project capabilities but would likely not go as far as testing missiles or other international provocations.
"Previously, the North would go strong to demonstrate its nuclear and missile capabilities when U.S. presidential elections came near, and it included test-firing [of missiles]," Lee told lawmakers.
"This time, our analysis is that the North will stop short of such things and opt just for a low-intensity demonstration of force."
What particular weapons North Korea displays during the parade could give observers a sense of Pyongyang’s posture, at least in the short term, according to Clint Work of the Washington-based Stimson Center.
“They’re focused on their own internal situation, and obviously the upcoming Workers Party commemoration and parade on October 10, that’s really I think the most notable upcoming development to keep an eye on. Depending on what armaments and weaponry they show, that could indicate a direction we may be going following the election.” Work told RFA’s Korean Service.
“If they roll out a new ICBM or SLBM [Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile] which would seem likely, I think that would be indicative of time…indicating that a return to testing beyond the short range testing they’ve already been doing could be in the works, depending on what happens with the election,” he said.
But Joseph Bermudez of the CSIS, who recently analyzed satellite imagery of a North Korean nuclear submarine testing site, told RFA that if North Korea is going to test weapons, now would be the most opportune time.
The CSIS analysis of North Korea’s Sinpo shipyard suggested that an SLBM test should not be ruled out as a possibility for Kim Jong Un’s “October Surprise”
“It would seem likely that if they were going to test around this time, it seems likely that it would be a good opportunity to test around now. Because they are likely going to show new systems during the parade.”
“A test would reinforce those capabilities…. It would give us the impression of them having operational capabilities additionally it would not be unusual try to influence the U.S. presidential elections,” Bermudez said.
But Bermudez also said that it was necessary to remain cautious of what North Korea displays during the parade.
“There are weapons systems that North Korea has produced and has made operational that have never been seen in a parade. North Korea only shows in its parades what it wants us to see,” he said, adding that sometimes the North even shows prototypes and non-operational weapons systems with an intent to deceive the outside world.
But regardless of what Pyongyang hopes to gain from the 75th anniversary, satellite analysis shows that North Korea is going all out to make it one of the country’s most grandiose events.
The Stimson Center’s 38 North Project studied satellite imagery of Kim Il Sung square and other sites in and around Pyongyang, finding that the government plans to unveil a new state of the art hospital, has refurbished a VIP viewing platform in the square, and erected a vehicle storage compound and installed camouflage netting to hide from satellites any vehicles that will be part of the parade.
“What’s more interesting is what we haven’t seen,” Martyn Williams who co-authored the analysis for 38 North, told RFA.
“We haven’t seen all of the big heavy machinery that we expect to see in the parade. So far North Korea’s done a pretty good job of kind of keeping that under wraps,” said Williams.
Soldiers who will march in the parade have been training for months. 38 North identified about 40 formations of troops practicing at a nearby airport converted into a replica of Kim Il Sung Square. Large numbers of troops could also be seen in other parts of the city.
Important national events normally bring in crowds from all over the country, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the throngs of Pyongyang-bound provincial participants have been isolating since mid-September and left for the capital weeks ago.
“On the 28th of last month, people who will participate in the 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party on the 10th left Chongjin by train for Pyongyang,” an official in North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast on the border with China, told RFA Tuesday.
The source said that the party’s Central Committee ordered the provincial party committee to assemble the participants in the provincial capital by Sept. 14 for coronavirus testing and physical examinations.
“In the past, participants in national events used to gather a week before the event… but this year they gathered earlier, and after more than 10 days in isolation, the exhausted participants left for Pyongyang,” the source said.
“The provincial party committee conducted intensive training on the rules of conduct that the participants should keep during the event,” the source added.
A resident in adjacent Ryanggang province told RFA Tuesday that participants left from the provincial capital Hyesan, also on Sept. 28. Competition for permission to travel to Pyongyang was fierce with a robust screening scheme in place.
“Those who are to participate were recommended for their achievements in carrying out the party’s policies and maintaining the party line,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The second source said the Ryanggang participants gathered in Hyesan on the 13th for isolation and coronavirus testing, just like their counterparts in Chongjin.
“It is rare for the authorities to manage those who participate in national events for such a long period of time.”
Anticipating that the festivities could attract illegal visits to the capital, authorities have blocked off the city from the beginning of October to the 15th to all except those authorized to participate, a Pyongyang official who requested anonymity told RFA on Wednesday.
“Security posts have been placed throughout the outskirts of Pyongyang… Even Pyongyang citizens cannot enter or leave the city during this period,” the official said.
“Police are even conducting home inspections. If they find people from other regions, they send them immediately back to their hometowns,” said the official.
Due to the restrictions, Pyongyang residents who traveled to the provinces prior to the announcement of the lockdown were stranded.
A resident of South Hamgyong province in the east of the country told RFA, “In September a friend of mine from Pyongyang came to visit her mother, who lives in my neighborhood. She is unable to return home because her travel certificate expired.”
“Banning the movement of Pyongyang citizens did not occur during the previous decade-commemorating anniversaries, but they did for this half-decade anniversary. Doesn’t that mean the authorities are worried about something?” said the South Hamgyong resident, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Some ordinary residents told RFA that the anniversary felt empty to them as the government has done nothing to improve their lives in three generations of rule by Kim Jong Un’s family.
“In the decades since the party’s founding, the leadership has been encouraging the people to live large by eating meat soup and rice, but what has really changed for us so far?” a resident of North Pyongan province, on the Chinese border in the country’s northwest, told RFA.
In neighboring South Pyongan province, another resident who requested anonymity told RFA, “Even elementary school kids know that if we had reformed and opened up as early as China did, we wouldn’t still be worrying about making ends meet, but what has the party doing for us until now?”
North Korea celebrates Party Foundation Day every year, but typically ramps up the intensity of celebrations around important milestones. Massive military parades were held on 11 occasions since 2007 including for the 70th Anniversaries of the foundation of the military in Feb. 2018, the country in Sept. 2018 and the party in Oct. 2015.
Reported by Sewon Kim, Soyoung Kim, Erin Ji, Jieun Kim and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.