North Korea celebrated Army Day on February 8 with a massive parade in Pyongyang overseen by the ruling elite of the country, including leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
The event marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army and had been carefully rehearsed for weeks, satellite images and South Korean intelligence agents confirmed.
The timing of the military parade, just a day before the beginning in South Korea of the Winter Olympic Games, which includes North Korean athletes, performance artists and high-ranking officials, was criticized in the South Korean media as being contrary to the Olympic spirit. But North Korea fiercely rejected the accusations, defending its right to celebrate its military.
While tanks and trucks carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) rolled down the streets in Pyongyang, in the South Korean city of Gangneung, North Korea’s cheerleading band performed at a welcoming ceremony armed only with musical instruments. In the city’s arts center, the North Korean orchestra performance was sold out, Reuters reported, despite a group protesting the performance.
Kim did not address the Olympics in his speech, which, according to the edited footage released by North Korean state television after the parade, lasted about 15 minutes—including applause breaks and a brief appearance by a woman, possibly his sister Kim Yo Jong, from behind a column. Kim focused on his country’s military preparedness to fight its enemies.
“Under the present situation which the U.S. and their followers are fussing over on the Korean Peninsula, our army should maintain a high level of military readiness and accelerate the preparation for battle. Therefore, we must not permit the invaders to infringe or ridicule our dignity and sovereignty, even by 0.001 millimeter,” the North Korean leader said, quoted in Reuters.
But despite the fierce rhetoric and the display of seven ICBMs, including four Hwasong-15 models—the country’s biggest and most powerful to date—North Korean experts noted the size of the parade was smaller than usual.
“It was smaller in scale and shorter in duration. It displayed the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs but, in its own way, seemed to practice restraint by being more selective in its weapons choices and by not having the international press on the ground covering the event,” Duyeon Kim, visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum think tank, told Newsweek.
She cautioned against seeing the parade as a provocation to disrupt the current conciliatory atmosphere: “All this seems to suggest that [Kim] was being mindful of the spirit of the Winter Olympics ‘truce’ and current geopolitical mood while still needing to go big on an important day for the North.”
“Instead, what’s more likely is that we will see a return of confrontational posture if and when North Korea provokes again after the Winter Olympics are over, especially when U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises resume.”