SEOUL (AP) : North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shared center stage with senior delegates from Russia and China as he rolled out his most powerful nuclear-capable missiles in a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, marking a major war anniversary with a show of defiance against the United States and deepening ties with Moscow as tensions on the peninsula are at their highest point in years.
State media said Friday Kim attended Thursday evening’s parade with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese ruling party official Li Hongzhong from a balcony looking over a brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, named after Kim’s grandfather, the founder of North Korea.
The streets and stands were packed with tens of thousands of mobilized spectators, who roared in approval as waves of goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and huge, intercontinental ballistic missiles wheeled out on launcher trucks filled up the main road. In recent days, according to KCNA reports, people have been brought from the around the country to fill the crowd.
Photos showed Kim Jong Un smiling and talking with Shoigu and Li, who respectively stood to his right and left at the balcony’s center spot, and Kim and Shoigu raising their hands to salute the parading troops. KCNA did not say whether Kim made a speech.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the parade featured ceremonial flights of newly developed surveillance and attack drones, which were first unveiled by state media this week as they reported on an arms exhibition attended by Kim and Shoigu.
For a finale, the parade rolled out new ICBMs that were flight-tested in recent months and demonstrated ranges that could reach deep into the US mainland, the Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18. Some analysts have argued these missiles are based on Russian designs.
North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam spoke, describing the parade as a historic celebration of the country’s “great victory against the American imperialists and the forces of their follower nations.”
He condemned the United States for its expanding military exercises with South Korea, which the North portrays as invasion rehearsals. The allies describe their drills as defensive, and say the upgrades in training are necessary to cope with the North’s evolving nuclear threat.
“(The) enemies have made a self-defeating final choice that will surely doom their fate,” Kang said.
Kang claimed the United States “does not have an option where it could use nuclear weapons against us and survive.”
Clouds over Pyongyang in recent days made it difficult for satellites to monitor preparations for the parade, which took place at night.
Satellite images showed what appeared to be a massing of people at the square at 1316 GMT (10:16 p.m. local) Thursday, said Dave Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which is part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
North Korea’s invitation of Russian and Chinese delegates was a rare diplomatic opening since the start of the pandemic. Experts say Kim is trying to break out of diplomatic isolation and boost the visibility of his partnership with authoritarian allies to counter pressure from the United States.
The parade followed meetings between Kim and Shoigu in Pyongyang this week that demonstrated North Korea’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and added to suspicions the North was willing to supply arms to Russia, whose war efforts have been compromised by defense procurement and inventory problems.
On Thursday, KCNA published a letter by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who thanked Kim for North Korea’s “firm support” of his war efforts in Ukraine. Putin said that interests between Moscow and Pyongyang were aligning as they counter the “policy of the Western group which hinders the establishment of the truly multi-polarized and just world order.”
Kim also held a luncheon and dinner banquet for Shoigu and his delegation following a second day of talks about expanding the countries’ “strategic and tactical collaboration and cooperation” in defense and security, KCNA said.
“Given Russia’s need for ammunition for its illegal war in Ukraine and Kim Jong Un’s willingness to personally give the Russian defense minister a tour of North Korea’s arms exhibition, UN member states should increase vigilance for observing and penalizing sanctions violations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
He added: “China’s representation at North Korea’s parading of nuclear-capable missiles raises serious questions about Beijing enabling Pyongyang’s threats to global security.”
The parade capped off the North Korean festivities for the 70th anniversary of the armistice that stopped fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War. North Korea, which triggered the war with a surprise attack on the South in June 1950, was supported by Chinese troops and the then-Soviet air force. South Korea, the United States and troops from other nations under the aegis of the UN fought to push back the invasion.
The July 1953 truce was never replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war, but the North still sees it as a victory in the “Grand Fatherland Liberation War.”
The anniversary events were more somber in South Korea, where President Yoon Suk Yeol visited a war cemetery in the city of Busan to honor the foreign troops who died while fighting for the South during the war.
In the face of growing North Korean threats, Yoon has pushed to expand South Korea’s military exercises with Washington and is seeking stronger US reassurances that it would use its nuclear capabilities to defend the South in the event of a nuclear attack.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also marked the anniversary with a statement expressing concern over what he described as a growing “nuclear risk” on the Korean Peninsula.
“I urge the parties to resume regular diplomatic contacts and nurture an environment conducive to dialogue,” he said.