Despite virus threat, giant military parade expected in Pyongyang

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Seoul | North Korea is expected to flaunt its latest military technology on Saturday in a giant parade in Pyongyang despite the threat of an epidemic that led the country to close its borders eight months ago.

The study of satellite photos makes the generally well-informed 38North site say that the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea could be huge.

“It is very clear that they are preparing something big,” also said at a conference of the think tank Atlantic Council the former commander of the American forces in Korea (USFK) Vincent Brooks.

Thousands of soldiers are expected to walk with a goose step on Place-Kim-Il-Sung, which owes its name to the founder of the regime, under the eyes of his grandson Kim Jong Un.

The military vehicles should follow one another, each bigger than the other, in a long progression until the highlight of the show, the missiles, according to what Pyongyang wants to convey as a message.

October surprise?

While tensions continued to rise, in April 2017 Pyongyang had scrolled through gigantic tubes likely to house intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In September 2018, when the diplomatic rapprochement between Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul was in full swing, the regime had not released its ICBMs, which the White House had welcomed.

Nuclear negotiations have been deadlocked since the failure of the Hanoi summit in February 2019.

Experts are convinced that North Korea has continued – including during the discussions – its nuclear and ballistic programs, which it justifies by the American threat.

At the end of December, Mr. Kim had spoken of a “new strategic weapon”. Some experts believe that Pyongyang could show off a new strategic sea-to-ground ballistic missile (MSBS) or ICBM on Saturday that could reach the US mainland. But they also don’t rule out the possibility that Pyongyang will refrain from angering Washington.

Despite speculation about a possible “October surprise” before the US presidential election, they consider a missile test unlikely.

“Showing it during the parade, rather than pulling it, would be a less provocative way to present it,” said Jenny Town, an expert at the Stimson Center.

Saturday’s anniversary comes in a heavy domestic context due to the pandemic and a series of typhoons.

Subject to a series of draconian sanctions from the international community, the country has never confirmed a single case of coronavirus on its soil, as the disease that appeared in neighboring China has spread to all corners of the world.

“Potemkin Village”

Pyongyang closed its borders in January to try to prevent the spread of the virus, which had the effect “of reinforcing the effect of the sanctions”, according to the commander of the USFK Robert Abrams.

Last week, North Korean soldiers shot dead a South Korean national who was in northern waters, presumably to avoid the risk of an epidemic if he was a carrier of the coronavirus.

The affair sparked an uproar in the South, and was followed by an extremely rare apology from Mr. Kim.

The parade also serves a domestic propaganda purpose to tell people that North Korea remains a “great military power, despite economic hardship,” according to Town.

Still, the event, which involves thousands of people, could be very conducive to the spread of the coronavirus, unless “extreme precautions” are taken, observes Harry Kazianis, of the Center for National Interest.

This kind of measure is however “very improbable”, he continues: “Masks and missiles do not mix well.”

The border closures also slowed the construction of Pyongyang General Hospital, which was due to be completed for this 75th anniversary.

Mr. Kim publicly reprimanded officials for the delay in building this prestigious establishment on a prime site: just across the hill from Mansu, where monumental statues of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il stand. .

Recent official photos showed the final work in pristine white hospital wards.

But the hospital is probably far from operational, according to Soo Kim of the RAND Corporation.

“North Korea lacks medical technology, skills, infrastructure and personnel to provide adequate medical care for its people,” she continues.

“This hospital will be just one more part of North Korea’s ‘Potemkin Village’.”

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