In A Break From Recent Precedent, North Korean Anniversary Parade Features No ICBMs

Updated at 12:23 p.m.

In Kim Il Sung square in central Pyongyang Sunday, a military parade marked the 70th anniversary of North Korea. The pageantry lasted more than two hours, and the parade featured bands, fireworks, tanks, balloons and goose-stepping, a North Korean specialty.

But, as NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reports from Pyongyang, the parade was notable for its relative restraint: There were no direct references to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and there were no intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The lack of ICBMs is a break from recent precedent for North Korea, whose regime has been known to use parades to show off new military capabilities. According to Reuters, ballistic missiles, including ICBMs, were on display at a North Korean military parade in February. North Korea’s “Day of the Sun” parade in April 2017 also featured several new missile systems.

After that April 2017 parade, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told NPR’s Michel Martin what he saw was “bewildering.”

“We saw many new systems that we had never seen before or things that we had seen before and that were heavily modified,” he added. “And so even people who follow their missile program closely, like I do, are still scratching our heads.”

U.S.-North Korea relations have changed since April 2017. After an unprecedented summit in June, President Trump and Kim Jong Un announced a joint goal of “complete denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula.” Last week, the New York Times reported that Kim Jong Un told a South Korean envoy he wanted a denuclearized North Korea by the end of President Trump’s first term.

President Trump responded on Twitter: “Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump.’ Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

According to Reuters, Kim Jong Un told a Chinese envoy who was in Pyongyang for Sunday’s parade that North Korea is upholding its commitment to denuclearization. China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported that Kim told Chinese parliament chief Li Zhanshu he hopes the U.S. upholds its commitments, too.

But talks between the U.S. and North Korea appear to have stalled, and at the end of July, the Washington Post reported, quoting “officials familiar with the intelligence,” that North Korea was building new ICBMs.

NPR’s Kelly reports that wave after wave of soldiers and civilians could be seen waving fake cherry blossoms at Sunday’s parade. “If you were trying to decipher the messaging [of the parade], it was maybe an effort not to antagonize,” she says.

In another break from precedent, Kim Jong Un did not speak at the parade. He chose instead to stroll on a balcony high above the crowd, waving at the crowd with both of his arms. His recent rhetoric, NPR’s Kelly reports, has focused on the North Korean economy. The small country’s economy has been crippled by sanctions, and Kim has said he wants to focus on building it.

Kim Yong Nam, the head of North Korea’s parliament, delivered the opening speech at Sunday’s parade. According to the Associated Press, he “emphasized the economic goals of the regime, not its nuclear might” and “called on the military to be ready to work to help build the economy.”

Retired CIA officer William Brown told NPR’s Ari Shapiro that while some money does circulate in North Korea, it is a largely command economy, controlled by the government. “A ration ticket decides how much you eat, where you live, where you go to school, your doctor,” Brown says.

According to Brown, economic reform in North Korea should start with a move to an open-money system:

“All they have to do is slowly, gradually peel off government assets and suck in the money. Sell farms. Sell apartment buildings. Sell coal lots — whatever. So by doing that, they pull in money to the government. That allows the government to … raise the wages for its workers. It’s not that hard a solution. That’s what I would hope that Kim Jong Un is starting to realize.”

In a speech in April, Kim declared that he would end the country’s system of byungjin, which insists on the parallel development of nuclear capabilities and the economy. In May, Kim also announced a five-year plan for the North Korean economy. North Korea had not put forth such a plan since 1980, though Reuters reported that it was “short on detail.”

Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. The square where the parade was held is named for his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who established the North Korean regime in 1948.

When he took to Twitter to respond to Sunday’s parade, President Trump also noted the absence of nuclear missiles. “Theme was peace and economic development,” he wrote. “This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other! Much better than before I took office.”

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