SEOUL, South Korea — Civil defense forces carrying rifles and personnel wearing gas masks and red hazmat suits paraded North Korea’s capital overnight in a celebration of the nation’s 73rd anniversary that was a marked departure from past militaristic displays.
The parade — overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, wearing a cream suit and visibly slimmer than he was at the start of the year — centered around paramilitary organizations and public security forces protecting Pyongyang instead of the major military units that handle the most important weapons of Kim’s nuclear and missile arsenal.
While the North's last two parades in January and last October featured provocative strategic weapons threatening the United States and Asian rivals, there was no immediate indication that the latest parade showcased ballistic weapons.
Thursday's state media reports on the event that began late Wednesday indicated its message was aimed at a domestic audience instead of displaying the country’s growing military might to the United States.
Experts say the toned-down event reflected the harsh challenges facing North Korea as its broken, mismanaged economy is further strained by unending U.S.-led sanctions, prolonged border closures because of the pandemic, and flooding that caused food shortages in recent years.
State media photos showed Kim smiling widely and waving from a balcony toward troops and spectators at Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after his grandfather who founded the nation in 1948. The reports did not say whether Kim made a speech during the event.
There had been expectations that North Korea would show off missiles and other important weapons to pressure the Biden administration over the diplomatic freeze with the U.S. after Kim failed to leverage his arsenal for economic benefits during the Trump years.
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But the latest parade shows that the North is too preoccupied with its domestic problems to attempt provocative messaging in foreign policy, said Hong Min, an analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Unification.
“The parade shows that the government felt a need to build unity domestically — the population is clearly suffering amid the pandemic and social complaints are likely building up,” said Hong, who said it was highly unusual that the North would showcase its civil defense units in parade.
“North Korea needs to enforce military-like discipline while mobilizing its civilians in campaigns to rebuild the economy and areas damaged by floods. There aren’t many ways for the leadership to encourage and motivate them, other than showcasing them on televised parades.”
Separately, the International Olympic Committee said Wednesday that North Korea had been suspended from the organization until the end of 2022 because it did not participate in the Tokyo Games this summer. The North Korean government said earlier this year that it would skip the event to protect its athletes from the coronavirus. The IOC's decision means that North Korea is barred from competing at the Winter Games in Beijing next year.