North Korea marks founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday with mass parade but no weapons

Thousands of North Koreans marched in a choreographed display of loyalty to the ruling Kim family during a massive civilian parade celebrating the birthday of the country’s founder attended by his grandson and current leader, Kim Jong-un.

State media images showed Kim waving from a balcony overlooking the vast square in Pyongyang named after his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as huge columns of people carrying red plastic flowers and floats with political slogans marched below.

Ri Il-hwan, a member of the ruling Workers’ party politburo, made a speech calling for loyalty, saying that North Koreans will “always emerge victorious” under Kim’s guidance. It appeared Kim didn’t deliver a speech during Friday’s event and state media didn’t mention any comments toward the United States or South Korea.

Kim Il-sung’s birthday is the most important national holiday in North Korea, where the Kim family has ruled under a strong personality cult since the nation’s founding in 1948. This week’s celebrations marking the 110th anniversary of his birth came as his grandson revives nuclear brinkmanship with the US and his neighbours.

Earlier this month Sung Kim, the special representative for North Korea policy at the US state department, said Washington believed Pyongyang could demonstrate its growing nuclear weapons capacity on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, but it appeared the country passed its biggest holiday without showcasing its military hardware.

Commercial satellite images in recent weeks have indicated preparations for a large military parade in the capital, which could take place on the 25 April founding anniversary of North Korea’s army and display the most advanced weapons in Kim’s nuclear arsenal, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

There is also expectation that Pyongyang will further escalate its weapons testing in the coming weeks or months, possibly including a resumption of nuclear explosive tests or test-flying missiles over Japan, as it attempts to force a response from the Biden administration, which is preoccupied with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a rivalry with China.

North Korea has opened 2022 with a slew of weapons tests, including its first flight test of an ICBM since 2017. South Korea’s military has also detected signs that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground it partially dismantled weeks before Kim’s first summit with the former US president Donald Trump in June 2018.

Kim’s defiant displays of his military might are also likely motivated by domestic politics, experts say, as he doesn’t otherwise have significant accomplishments to trumpet to his people after a decade in power.

“Kim Jong-un’s stated goal of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, [his sister] Kim Yo-jong’s recent threats toward Seoul and satellite imagery of tunnelling activity at Punggye-ri all point to an upcoming nuclear test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Additional missile launches are also expected for honing weapons delivery systems.”

Sung Kim is scheduled to visit South Korea next week for talks on the international community’s response to the North’s recent missile tests.

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