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North Korea holds military parade to celebrate 70th anniversary with focus on economy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center top left, waves as he leaves after a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea, on September 9, 2018. Photo: AP

North Korea held a major military parade and revived its iconic mass games to celebrate its 70th anniversary, but in keeping with leader Kim Jong-un's new policies the emphasis was firmly on building up the economy, not on nuclear weapons.

North Korea rolled out some of its latest tanks and marched its best-trained goose-stepping units in Sunday's parade but held back its most advanced missiles and devoted nearly half of the event to civilian efforts to build the domestic economy.

Senior statesman Kim Yong-nam, the head of North Korea's parliament, set the relatively softer tone for the parade with an opening speech that emphasized the economic goals of the regime, not its nuclear might. He called on the military to be ready to work to help build the economy.

It also brought the mass games back after a five-year hiatus. The games are a grand spectacle that features nearly 20,000 people flipping placards in unison to create huge mosaics as thousands more perform gymnastics or dance in formation on the competition area of Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day Stadium.

The strong emphasis on the economy underscores the strategy Kim has pursued since January of putting economic development front and center.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans waving brightly colored plastic bouquets filled Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square as the parade began. Residents of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, trained for months for the anniversary and held up the bouquets to spell out words and slogans that can be seen from the VIP viewing area.

That's a big departure from February's parade, when it displayed its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, believed capable of reaching the United States, and a number of other formidable missiles and the erector-launchers used to fire them off from remote locations.

Observers said that the decision to hold off on the intercontinental ballistic missiles could earn Kim even another summit with US President Donald Trump.

But they also warned that simply keeping the ICBMs out of sight would not deflect Washington's scrutiny of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Atsushi Tago, professor of international relations at Tokyo's Waseda University, said that the absence of the ICBMs could signal Kim's willingness to "denuclearize" and raise prospects for talks with the United States.

"It would be logical to interpret that North Korea would still like to be in line with the Trump-Kim agreement in Singapore," Tago said.

According to South Korean diplomatic sources, Trump also underscored the need for North Korea to shut down its ICBM facilities. Kim agreed to take action on the missiles but the agreement was not included in the two leaders' joint declaration, the sources said.

Monitoring group 38 North said that satellite images taken on August 3 suggested that North Korea had started dismantling ICBM facilities at Sohae, about 200 kilometers northwest of Pyongyang.

Song Zhongping, a former member of China's rocket corps, said that Sunday's "low-profile" parade indicated that Kim did not want to send any signals that might provoke Washington.

"There were no Hwasong-14s, Pukguksongs or other weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the US – just some conventional and defensive arms," Song said.

"Pyongyang doesn't want to irritate the US and the international community amid the new calm on the Korean peninsula."

"Kim also wants to create a 'good atmosphere' for his third meeting with [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in next week."

Soon after the anniversary celebrations end, Kim will meet in Pyongyang with Moon to discuss ways to break the impasse over his nuclear weapons.

Song said that Kim might also be aiming for another summit with the US president.

"The North wants to show their 'determination and sincerity' for denuclearization, as Kim desires continued negotiations with Trump," he said.

Zhao Tong, a fellow in Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said another goal might be economic.

In April, Kim said that the country was shifting away from its byungjin twin-track policy of developing nuclear weapons and the economy at the same time, to focusing solely on the economy.

"North Korea has a strategic interest in building a positive relationship with the United States to create a favorable environment for its economic development ... By refraining from showing off its most provocative missiles, North Korea seeks to maintain the momentum of improving bilateral relations with the United States and of breaking its international isolation," Zhao said.

'Upholds the consensus'

In the review stand, Kim sat with a special envoy from China, as well as other visiting foreigners.

At the end of the two-hour event Kim strolled to the edge of the balcony with the Chinese special envoy, Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking member in China's ruling Communist Party. The two held up their joined hands to symbolize the countries' traditionally close ties, though the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping could indicate Beijing still has some reservations about Kim's initiatives.

Kim told Li, the Chinese parliament chief, that North Korea was focusing on economic development and hopes to learn from China's experience in this regard, Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television reported.

"North Korea upholds the consensus of the Singapore meeting between the leaders of North Korea and the United States and has taken steps for it and hopes the United States takes corresponding steps, to jointly promote the political resolution process for the peninsula issue," the report paraphrased Kim as saying.

In talks with Kim on Sunday while in Pyongyang, Li stressed the need for North Korea and the United States "to thoroughly implement the consensus ... to reach the common goal of denuclearization", China Central Television reported.

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said that Xi sent a message to Kim on behalf of the Communist Party of China to congratulate North Korea on its 70th anniversary, and to express Xi's desire to work closely with Kim to promote a "long-term, healthy and stable development of China-North Korea relations".

'Thank you To Chairman Kim'

Trump on Twitter quoted a Fox News description of the event without long-range nuclear missiles as a sign of North Korea's "commitment to denuclearize."

"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," Trump tweeted.

Trump, echoing North Korean commentary on the parade, said that the "theme was peace and economic development." The president favorably said that "Experts believe that North Korea cut out the nuclear missiles to show President Trump its commitment to denuclearize."

The military parade happened at a particularly sensitive time for North Korea. The North is attempting to ease tensions with the United States, following the June summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore.

Kim pledged at the summit to abandon his country's nuclear arsenal, but the agreement did not lay out how and when that might occur. Last week Kim said that he hopes to denuclearize the country by the end of Trump's first term in the White House in early January 2021.

Within a day of leaving the summit, Trump declared, "There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea."

However, more recently, Trump, despite his praise for Kim, has been irked at the slow pace of talks between the two countries. Last month, he ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to not go to Pyongyang for more discussions.

Both Kim and Trump want agreements made before beginning a new round of talks. Washington wants North Korea to commit specifically to denuclearization, while Pyongyang is demanding security assurances and other concessions in advance of dismantling its nuclear arsenal.

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