War and the Peace Olympics: North Korea's 12,000-Troop Military Event Ahead of Games Was Planned for Months

The North Korean national flag is displayed at the athletes' village in Gangneung ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, on February 5. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

A North Korean military parade planned for the day before the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea had been in the works for months, according to a South Korean intelligence agency.

As many as 12,000 troops had been mobilized for the event since early December, the National Intelligence Service told a group of South Korean lawmakers at a closed-door briefing, Yonhap news agency reported Monday. The spy agency also warned that a tunnel at the North Korean nuclear facility of Punggye-ri was ready for a test "at any time," and that North Korean hackers stole tens of billions worth of won cryptocurrencies from South Korean exchanges.

The military event celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Korean People's Army (KPA), the country's armed forces that former leader Kim Il Sung institutionalized on February 8, 1948, transforming the anti-Japanese guerrilla force known as the Korean People's Revolutionary Army he created on April 25, 1932.

The country used to observe both days, but starting in 1978, February 8 ceased to be considered a major event. Kim Jong Un reinstated the anniversary in 2015, analyst Robert Carlin noted in an article published on North Korea–monitoring website 38 North. While the young Kim had yet to organize an Army Day parade, this year's event is no surprise, as the regime tends to organize mass celebrations of important anniversaries.

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News of the parade preparation first emerged in mid-January, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un showed willingness to restore some contact with South Korea ahead of the sporting event held in Pyeongchang, a city 50 miles south of the border that divides the Korean Peninsula.

The South Korean government is promoting the Olympic rapprochement as a "stepping stone to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, to Northeast Asia and the world," calling the games the "peace Olympics." The two syllables in Pyeongchang, respectively, mean "peace" and "prosperity" in English.

But just a day before North and South Korean athletes are due to march under a united banner, the planned celebration of its ongoing development of nuclear and missile weapons and of the KPA troops that invaded South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War offer a reminder of the challenges facing a meaningful peace process in the Korean Peninsula, which technically remains at war since the armistice that ended the fighting was never followed by a peace agreement.

North Korea's ruling Workers' Party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun defended the country's right to hold the military parade despite the timing. South Korea, on the other hand, postponed joint military exercises with the U.S. that were scheduled for the end of February, so as to not disrupt the Olympic spirit.

"It is a custom and very basic common sense that any country in the world takes the founding anniversary of its military very seriously and celebrates it," the party-controlled North Korean newspaper wrote, quoted in AFP on Saturday. Earlier that week, North Korea canceled a joint cultural performance with South Korea over criticism of the military parade in South Korean media.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach signs the Olympic Truce mural during a ceremony outside South Korea's Pyeongchang Olympic Village prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics on February 5. Patrick Semansky - Pool/Getty Images

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach nonetheless expressed satisfaction with the inter-Korean collaboration displayed on occasion of the games.

"The Olympic spirit has brought two sides together that for too long were divided by mistrust and animosity. The Olympic spirit has brought real hope for a brighter future for everyone on the Korean Peninsula," Bach said Monday at the opening of the IOC's 132nd session in Gangneung, the South Korean city that will host the sliding and skating events at the games, which will be held February 9-25.

Earlier that day, Bach attended the unveiling of the Olympic Truce Wall in Pyeongchang, a monument symbolizing the Olympic spirit designed by South Korean artist Yi Je-Seok and inspired by Pope Francis' words of building bridges, not walls, Yonhap reported.