Tuesday 12 November 2019

Kim's show of strength

North Korean leader laughs and claps at a parade of soldiers, tanks and ballistic missiles in Pyongyang, writes Patrick Sawer

MILITARY MIGHT: North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
MILITARY MIGHT: North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Patrick Sawer

'Long live," they chanted, some of them in tears. As the world held its breath amid growing nuclear tension, thousands of North Korean soldiers, sailors and airmen put on an intimidating display of military might.

"Long live," they chanted, as dozens of rockets and missiles capable of inflicting terrifying devastation for hundreds of miles around rumbled through the North Korean capital Pyongyang - an armoury of death accompanied by a chant for the well-being of their leader Kim Jong-un.

And at the heart of the parade across Kim Il-sung Square was what was feared to be a new long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, for the first time giving a capability of striking the United States.

Goose-stepping in precise ranks, their pristine uniforms glinting in the sun, the men and women of North Korea's armed forces put on their annual Cold War-era display to commemorate the eldest Kim, the nation's founder.

One unit of uniformed women engaged in a synchronised sword dance, while regimented bands of loyal "citizens" waved flowers in unison.

Other detachments carried rocket-propelled grenades, their eyes turned towards the balcony from where Kim watched, flanked by officers and officials, bestowing the occasional benign wave.

But it was what came next that was meant to truly terrify the watching world; 56 missiles of 10 different models, culminating in a series of enormous rockets on articulated trailers.

The weaponry included what appeared to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile, or a prototype of one, covered by canisters - although there were questions as to whether there was anything inside.

Addressing the packed square next to the Taedong River flowing through Pyongyang, Choe Ryong-Hae - regarded as North Korea's number two official - said Donald Trump was guilty of "creating a war situation" on the Korean Peninsula by dispatching American forces to the region.

"If the United States wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with an annihilating strike, and we will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare," he said.

The country's state news agency, KCNA, said the Trump administration's "serious military hysteria" had reached a "dangerous phase which can no longer be overlooked".

Read More: What was on display at yesterday's military march?

The occasion for yesterday's parade was the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong-un's grandfather Kim Il-sung. His anniversary is known as the 'Day of the Sun' and a squadron of warplanes flying in a '105' formation roared overhead. But it was also intended to send a message to Mr Trump, who has deployed an aircraft carrier battle group to the region.

Alongside Kim, who succeeded his father Kim Jong-il as supreme commander, were the military leaders who are said to be the real power behind the family throne. Kim did not speak during the annual parade, but he made a point of greeting the commander of the Strategic Forces, the branch responsible for the missile arsenal.

In Dandong, China's main border post with North Korea, hundreds of North Koreans gathered at a cultural centre carrying floral displays and bowing to portraits of their nation's founder. The men wore pins adorned with photos of Kim Il-sung, while the women were dressed in brightly coloured traditional outfits.

Several analysts watching the parade said it was a "highly visible way of showing off capabilities", though there were also suggestions the missile canisters might be empty mock-ups designed to impress.

Cristina Varriale, an analyst on nuclear proliferation at the Royal United Services Institute, said: "We are not sure how far down that path they have got, but now we know they have got the shell capacity.

"It could be a mock-up - they could just be at the design stage, or they could have gone further."

Ms Varriale said it was particularly significant that a number of the launching vehicles appeared to be more manoeuvrable than in previous parades, with tracks instead of wheels, suggesting North Korea is not just posing symbolically but thinking practically about how to use them.

She warned: "The US is goading them but they are playing with the wrong country. The North Koreans are not going to back down."

Prof Malcolm Chalmers, of the Royal United Services Institute, said: "The North Koreans are trying to give the impression that they are close to having the capability to launch an ICBM, but whether they actually can is another matter. They are trying to increase their deterrent potential.

"I think it's clear that if they were able to launch an ICBM they would have tested it as a deterrent to deter the Americans. The Americans will want to take any action before."

Prof Chalmers went on: "The driving force of the whole programme is regime survival. North Koreans would hope an ability to launch a nuclear warhead on the United States would deter the Americans from intervening in a local nuclear war."

Evans Revere, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the parade was intended to send "a tough message to the US in response to the Trump administration's recent rhetoric and the military steps taken".

Mr Revere said another missile launch or nuclear test - the country's sixth - "can't be ruled out", but added that the recent US strike on Syria "may give Pyongyang some pause for thought".

It could all be a giant bluff - suggest you may be about to stage another nuclear test only to limit your sabre-rattling to an overblown parade. But with nuclear annihilation on the agenda, nobody was in the mood to take yesterday's show of strength lightly.

Despite this, and even with such high stakes to play for, there is visible support for hardline tactics on the Korean peninsula. Yesterday, demonstrators gathered in Seoul to demand the South Korean government take a hard-line approach to North Korean provocation, and support US action against Pyongyang.

"Mr President Trump. We wish you pre-emptive strikes against N Korea," read one prominent banner in the centre of the capital. Cooler heads may yet prevail.



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