Kim flexes military muscle on eve of Olympics
North Korea staged a military parade in Pyongyang yesterday to mark the 70th anniversary of its armed forces, in a show of strength just a day before the Winter Olympics open in the South.
The nuclear-armed North is on an Olympics-linked charm offensive - sending a troupe of performers, hundreds of female cheerleaders, and the sister of leader Kim Jong-un to South Korea.
But regiments of soldiers goose-stepped in formation through Kim Il-sung Square yesterday, followed by increasingly heavy weapons.
Unlike the North's last parade in April 2017, its state television did not show the event live, instead airing it several hours later.
Fireworks went off as Mr Kim took his place on the rostrum to watch the display, along with his wife Ri Sol-ju and ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam - who will head Pyongyang's delegation to the Olympics today.
"Long live," cried the assembled troops, their breath condensing in the sub-zero temperatures, and some of them in tears at the sight of their leader.
Tanks and armoured vehicles stood waiting to drive through the streets leading towards the square, along with missile transporters - usually the highlight of the parades for Pyongyang-watchers who examine them for clues about its technological progress.
Analysts say that with the dual approach, the North is looking to normalise its status as a "de facto nuclear state", and could be trying to weaken sanctions against it or drive a wedge between the South and its ally the US.
North Korea is under multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, which have seen it develop rockets capable of reaching the US mainland.
Pyongyang last month announced that it was changing the date of its military commemoration from April 25 to February 8 - the day before the Games' opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, just 80km south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula.
North Korea normally invites hundreds of foreign journalists to show off the spectacle to the world.
But it did not do so this time, possibly an indication that it wanted to control how the display is seen - which would be in keeping with the absence of live coverage.
The North's high-level delegation for the Olympics is being led by its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, the highest-level official ever to visit the South.
It also includes Mr Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong - an increasingly powerful and influential figure.
The delegation will have lunch with the South's President Moon Jae-in tomorrow, Seoul's presidential Blue House said, after arriving by plane today.
US Vice President Mike Pence was due to arrive in the South last night.
He is also scheduled to attend the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang today.
That could put him in the same room as Kim Yong-nam at a leaders' reception beforehand, raising the prospect of senior figures from the two sides meeting after a year in which their leaders traded personal insults and threats of war.
Earlier yesterday Cho Yong Sam, a senior Pyongyang foreign ministry official, was quoted as saying the North had "no intention" of meeting US authorities during the trip.
"We have never begged for dialogue with the US and will never do so," he said.
But his comments did not rule out a meeting - and nor has Mr Pence, who lambasted the North yesterday, but added: "There may be a possibility for any kind of an encounter with North Koreans," whether informal or a meeting.
"We'll have to wait and see exactly how that unfolds," he added.
The Winter Olympics have triggered a rapid rapprochement on the peninsula.
But analysts have warned that warmer relations may not last long beyond the games.
Tensions soared last year as the North carried out multiple weapons tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, and by far its most powerful nuclear test that it has held to date.
For months Pyongyang ignored Seoul's entreaties to take part in a "peace Olympics" until Mr Kim indicated his willingness to do so in his New Year speech.
That set off a rapid series of meetings which has seen the two Koreas agree to march together at the opening ceremony and form a unified women's ice hockey team, their first for 27 years.
But critics in the South say that Seoul has made too many concessions to Pyongyang.
Demonstrators have also protested the arrival of an art troupe earlier this week.
US charge d'affaires to Seoul Marc Knapper has dismissed concerns about a Northern charm offensive towards the South. "It's going to take a lot more than a North Korean Olympic delegation to undermine this alliance," he told reporters. "The more North Koreans that can come here and see how successful the South has been, the better," he added.
"It sends a strong message about what happens when leaders make the right choices about how their society will develop, how their economy will evolve, how their political situation will grow."