Kim Jong Un celebrated the 70th anniversary of his ruling Workers’ Party with what appeared to be one of the largest military parades North Korea had ever organized.
SEOUL, South Korea — Long columns of goose-stepping soldiers, accompanied by what North Korea claimed were nuclear-tipped missiles, marched through central Pyongyang, the capital, on Saturday, as the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, gave his first public speech in three years to emphasize his “love for the people” and declare his readiness to “fight any form of war” with the United States.
Kim celebrated the 70th anniversary of his ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday with what appeared to be one of the largest military parades the North had ever organized.
As warplanes flew overhead and tens of thousands of North Koreans watched, the plaza in Pyongyang was filled with thousands of soldiers and citizens chanting slogans of loyalty to the Kim family and waving pink and red artificial flowers in synchronized moves.
In a 25-minute speech before the parade, Kim spoke of his “love” and “dedication to the people,” whom he thanked for staying with his party through decades of U.S.-led economic sanctions and blockades.
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In his first public speech, before a similar military parade in 2012, Kim promised that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belt again.” Pyongyang, the showpiece capital where the people most loyal to the regime are allowed to live, has since gone through a major face-lift. But economic conditions for people in the rest of North Korea remain dire, according to international human-rights groups.
Kim’s efforts to reinvigorate the economy are hampered by U.N. sanctions, prompted by the North’s nuclear- and long-range missile programs. His government also spends lavishly to maintain the personality cult surrounding his family.
Kim, who is in his early 30s, walked down a red carpet and saluted his honor guard before taking the podium to deliver the often fiery speech. He did not mention his nuclear or missile programs but vowed to continue his policy of pursuing a nuclear arsenal and economic development simultaneously.
“Our revolutionary armed forces are ready to fight any form of war the American imperialists want,” he said, while the only prominent foreign guest — Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Politburo — stood nearby.
Liu is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the North since Kim rose to power in late 2011. President Xi Jinping of China also sent a warm note to Kim, a sign that relations may be thawing after a deep chill.
In the message, widely reported by the Chinese state media, Xi said he extended the congratulations of the Chinese Communist Party and sent his own personal good wishes. He hailed Kim for having achieved “positive progress in developing the economy, improving livelihoods, and so on.”
China is the isolated North’s only major ally, and Xi had seemed to establish a new distance between the countries soon after taking power in late 2012. He said no country should be allowed to destabilize the Asian region or the world for “selfish gain,” a statement that was interpreted as a criticism of Kim’s nuclear-weapons program.
China has signed on to U.N. sanctions meant to punish North Korea for its nuclear-weapons program, and Kim was absent from China’s military parade in Beijing last month.
Despite its concerns about the North’s nuclear program, China has not used its full economic leverage to discourage the North from pursuing it, apparently being more concerned about potential instability in the North that could spill into its territory.
China’s economic largesse keeps North Korea’s bare-bones economy afloat, but a debate has been roiling in the past year among Chinese military officials and academics over whether its ally is more a liability than an asset. China has also been expanding its ties to South Korea.
A Chinese expert on North Korea, Yang Xiyu, said the tone of Xi’s letter to Kim was fairly standard.
The wording is “always the same no matter whether the bilateral relationship is in good shape or bad shape,” said Yang, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.
But John Delury, an associate professor of international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said Xi seemed to have used the occasion to mend fences with the North, at least to a degree. “Xi’s letter marks the Chinese leader’s first real effort to make friends with Kim Jong Un,” Delury said.
Delury noted that Xi’s letter did not mention denuclearization, in contrast with an earlier message carried by Vice President Li Yuanchao, who in 2013 tried to press North Korea to slow down its nuclear program.
Xi’s failure to mention denuclearization will disappoint those in the U.S. who believed China was coming around to their hard-line stance toward Kim, Delury said.
The North’s state-run Korean Central Television showed columns of tanks, drones and rocket tubes. South Korean officials said the tubes included a new model with a range long enough to strike South Korean and U.S. military bases south of Seoul. The highlight was what South Korean officials said appeared to be a new version of KN-08 long-range missiles.
The KN-08 is widely believed to have been designed as the North’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. But it has never been flight-tested, so when it was first shown in public in 2012 and 2013, some outside analysts said it might be a mock-up of a system still under development.