PYONGYANG: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on Saturday saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions.
After inspecting an honour guard, Kim, in a black suit, watched the parade pour into Kim Il-Sung Square, accompanied by top military and party leaders, state television showed in a live broadcast.
Led by rows of military bands, columns of troops toting rifles and a troupe of sword-wielding female soldiers marched into the vast square in the heart of the city which was festooned in the national colours of blue, white and red.
“Today’s parade will provide a chance to display our powerful military might,” a male voiceover said on the TV broadcast.
Ostensibly the event is to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim’s grandfather, the North’s founder Kim Il-Sung -– a date known as the “Day of the Sun” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.
But it is also intended to send an unmistakable message to Washington about the isolated, nuclear-armed North’s military might.
Kim did not address the rally, but his close aide Choe Ryong-Hae gave a defiant speech saying that Pyongyang would react in kind to any provocation — nuclear or otherwise.
“We’re prepared to respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and we are ready to hit back with nuclear attacks of our own style against any nuclear attacks,” Choe said.
Pyongyang is under multiple sets of United Nations sanctions over its atomic and ballistic missile programmes, and has ambitions to build a rocket capable of delivering a warhead to the US mainland -– something US President Donald Trump has vowed “won’t happen”.
It has carried out five nuclear tests –- two of them last year -– and multiple missile launches, one of which saw three rockets come down in waters provocatively close to Japan last month.
Speculation that it could conduct a sixth blast in the coming days to coincide with the anniversary has reached fever pitch, with specialist US website 38North describing its Punggye-ri test site as “primed and ready” and White House officials saying military options were “already being assessed”.
Trump has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and an accompanying battle group to the Korean peninsula.
“We are sending an armada. Very powerful,” Trump told the Fox Business Network. “He is doing the wrong thing,” he added of Kim. “He’s making a big mistake.”
China, the North’s sole major ally, and Russia have both urged restraint, with Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warning Friday that “conflict could break out at any moment”.
North Korea’s army vowed on Friday a “merciless” response to any US provocation but diplomats in Pyongyang are more sanguine, pointing out that the North raises its rhetoric every spring, when Washington and Seoul hold annual joint exercises that it views as preparations for invasion.
None of the North’s five previous nuclear tests has taken place in the month of April.
The hardware displayed Saturday included what appeared to be a new ICBM and a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which Pyongyang successfully test-fired last August, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
Military specialists keep a close eye on Pyongyang’s military parades for clues about developments in the North’s capabilities.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty and Pyongyang says that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against a possible US invasion.
The US cruise missile strike on Syria vindicated its stance, it said last weekend.
Pyongyang could use the parade as a show of strength in preference to a nuclear test, analysts said.
It wanted to send “a tough message to the United States in response to the Trump administration’s recent rhetoric and the military steps the United States has taken”, said Evans Revere of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Another missile launch or nuclear test “can’t be ruled out”, he said, but the Syria strike and Washington’s implied threats “may give Pyongyang some pause”.
“A parade is a highly visible but non-kinetic way of showing off capabilities,” he told AFP.
The North is aiming its message at China as well as the US, analysts say.
Beijing has made clear its frustration with Pyongyang’s stubbornness but its priority remains preventing any instability on its doorstep, and it has been unnerved by the sabre-rattling.
Pyongyang was “upset with all of its neighbours”, said Bruce Bennett of the Rand Organisation and Kim needs to “demonstrate defiance”.