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'Masks and missiles don't mix': North Korea holds giant military parade, ignoring pandemic fears

The state is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a ceremony to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s ruling party in Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a ceremony to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s ruling party in Pyongyang.
Image: AP/PA Images

Updated Oct 10th 2020, 4:00 PM

NORTH KOREA HELD a giant military parade today, television images showed, with thousands of mask-less troops defying the coronavirus threat as Pyongyang showed its latest and most advanced weapons.

The widely anticipated display is part of commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

The parade was used to unveil what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and other additions to the country’s growing weapons arsenal.

State broadcaster KCTV showed squadron after squadron of armed soldiers and armoured vehicles lined up in the streets of Pyongyang ready to march through Kim Il Sung square in a night-time display.

None of the participants or the audience lined up in the stands were wearing masks, but there were far fewer citizens than usual on the square itself.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told the audience at the military parade that he was grateful “not a single person” in the North had contracted the coronavirus that has swept the world since emerging in neighbouring China.


The programme opened with an image of a propaganda poster for the commemorations, showing three North Koreans holding up its symbols of a hammer, sickle and brush, and the slogan: “The biggest glory to our great party.”

According to Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff, the display actually took place in the early hours of Saturday, when they said in a statement that “signs of a military parade – involving equipment and people on a large scale – were detected at Kim Il Sung Square”. 

South Korean and US intelligence agencies were “closely tracking the event”, they added.

The ruling party 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 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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 early last year.

Analysts expected a new submarine-launched ballistic missile or an intercontinental ballistic missile 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.

north-korea-party-anniversary Video broadcasted by North Korea's KRT shows a military parade in Pyongyang. Source: AP/PA Images

Showcasing its most advanced weapons ”will signal a big step forward in Pyongyang’s credible threat capabilities”, he said.

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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 were left in the city.

Foreigners were not welcome at the anniversary commemorations, 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 the venues.

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”, said analyst Lee, while “not provoking the United States as much as a test-launch of a strategic weapon”.

But Harry Kazianis of the Centre for the National Interest warned that if thousands of people were 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,” he said.

© AFP 2020

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