It was near midnight on October 10 when fireworks flew over Pyongyang. A singer performed the national anthem and what appeared to be intercontinental ballistic missiles rolled through Kim Il Sung Square. Not one person in the crowd wore a face mask, as North Korea claims to have had no coronavirus infections.
Before the parade, leader Kim Jong Un surprised spectators and television viewers when he began to speak. He seemed to be on the verge of tears and repeatedly apologized and expressed gratitude.
The Korean Central News Agency later released a transcript of his 30-minute address, which included the following lines.
“Our people have placed trust, as high as the sky and as deep as the sea, on me, but I have failed to always live up to it satisfactorily. I am really sorry for that.
“My efforts and sincerity have not been sufficient enough to rid our people of difficulties in their life.
Some experts say the tone suggests there are serious problems inside the country. South Korean media say the North has been suffering from what they call a “triple hardship.”
Years of UN-led sanctions have left the country in a dire economic situation. North Korea is now heavily dependent on trade with China for survival, and it had to close its borders earlier this year to keep the coronavirus out. Trade with its giant neighbor had plunged 70% by August.
Then three typhoons hit over the summer and made the crisis even worse. The ever-secretive North Korea hasn’t revealed the full extent of the damage, but a source who contacted people in the country late last month told NHK that supplies are not reaching the affected areas, and there is a shortage of materials for reconstruction. The source also said people are struggling to see a future beyond the coming winter.
Atsuhito Isozaki, an Associate Professor at Keio University and an expert on North Korean politics, says North Korea’s leadership needed Kim to make the speech.
“Kim was about to cry, and many people in the venue really did shed tears. I think Pyongyang tried to make a moment to demonstrate that the leaders, the party and the people are unified."
But there was more to the parade than just Kim’s remorseful speech. Pyongyang also unveiled several new weapons, including a huge missile mounted on a 22-wheel vehicle.
Yu Koizumi, an assistant professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology of Tokyo University, is a military expert familiar with the North’s artillery and says this is likely one of the world's largest mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“It's gigantic,” he says. “It seems to be about the same size as the super-large ICBMs built by the US and the former Soviet Union. I think it shows a significant advance in capabilities, including the ability to carry multiple warheads. I think Pyongyang is trying to evolve its deterrence by having a longer range and multiple nuclear warheads in one shot.”
US presidential election in mind
While North Korea flaunted its military might, Kim avoided any direct criticism of the US in his speech.
The two countries are deadlocked on denuclearization talks, and Kim may be trying to avoid a spat with US President Donald Trump while he is immersed in a reelection campaign. Earlier this month, when Trump announced he tested positive for the coronavirus, Kim immediately sent a message of sympathy.
“Pyongyang might think that it needs to keep a tie with Washington,” Isozaki says. “I think for now they’re just going to wait for the election results before making any moves.”