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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea parade to signal whether Kim plans to provoke US

A new advanced weapon could be unveiled at weekend's celebrations

Delegates arrive for celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea at Pyongyang railway station on Monday.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korea is set to hold a military parade on Saturday, an event that will offer clues as to whether Pyongyang is looking to turn aggressive to break diplomatic standstills with the U.S. and South Korea.

State media reported this week that representatives from across the country have been arriving in the capital for events to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party, and the city is "teeming with a festive atmosphere." Satellite imagery released Tuesday by 38 North, a website that monitors North Korea, indicated that the main public square in Pyongyang had been cordoned off in preparation for the parade.

The combative country has in the past used large public gatherings, with thousands of chanting attendees and goose-stepping soldiers, to show off its most powerful military hardware. This weekend's parade could include the unveiling of a new advanced weapon, something leader Kim Jong Un alluded to in his New Year's address.

Despite a desire to project an image of strength to the outside world, North Korea is reeling from the effects of comprehensive economic sanctions and is working to repair damage from strong typhoons. While the country has not admitted to any COVID-19 cases, it has closed its border with China since the start of the pandemic, cutting off much of its international trade.

North Korea has become diplomatically isolated after a series of summits between Kim and the presidents of the U.S. and South Korea in 2018 and 2019, and talks with Washington have fallen dormant. With the White House grappling with the pandemic ahead of what is likely to be a long and contentious election cycle, Pyongyang may refrain from shows of antagonism this week, analysts said.

"I think Kim wants to see what happens with the U.S. election -- if Joe Biden wins, Kim might decide then to stage a provocation to test Biden's resolve," Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Nikkei Asia.

"Given all that is happening in the U.S. right now, given the COVID impact on the election process, Kim will play it safe and see what the outcome is. He's going to gain very little by doing something provocative immediately," Davis said.

However, images of a shipyard off North Korea's east coast, released on Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, indicate activity that could suggest an upcoming test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

CSIS data indicate that such a test would be consistent with North Korea's track record of carrying out provocations around U.S. elections.

In a briefing on Wednesday, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook said the South's intelligence has found signs that North Korea appears to be planning to carry out a military show of force to mark the anniversary.

This week, Kim presided over a Workers' Party Politburo meeting where he announced a campaign to increase efforts for economic development over the rest of the year. State media called on the country to seize the spirit of the upcoming anniversary to "proudly conclude this year's struggle in elated spirit."

In August, Kim made an uncharacteristic admission that the country's economic plan had failed to achieve its objectives, and pledged to implement a new plan next year.

A projection mapping show is held in Pyongyang on Tuesday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea .   © Kyodo

Throughout its efforts to grapple with challenges, such as economic turmoil and the coronavirus, North Korea has made no progress toward repairing relations with South Korea, which have been frozen for months.

The two sides are at loggerheads over the recent case of a South Korean official whom Seoul said leapt from a boat in the Yellow Sea with the intention of floating toward, and defecting to, North Korea.

South Korea has said that North Korean soldiers fatally shot the official before burning his body. Pyongyang has apologized but has not responded to Seoul's call to carry out a joint probe into the case, and the official's family has publicly disputed the government's claim that he tried to defect.

Though Kim has some incentive to pass the anniversary without a show of force, the timing could also be ripe to remind the world of North Korea's ongoing determination to enhance its military might.

"This parade could be a good opportunity to show off a new advanced weapon, possibly an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads, which would be a totally new type," Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University, told Nikkei.

"Sooner or later, they will return to their path of brinkmanship to increase tensions and put pressure on the U.S. and South Korea to return to talks," Park said.

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