PYONGYANG, North Korea—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took center stage at a military parade and mass rally in Pyongyang on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s ruling party by declaring in a rare speech that the North has no intention of straying from the socialist track established by his grandfather and is ready to stand up to any threat posed by the United States.
With the eyes of the world upon him, Kim, the youngest and most enigmatic head of state, confidently and firmly delivered the speech from the balcony of the palatial People’s Grand Study House as tens of thousands of his countrymen and an unusually large international media contingent watched from their places below on the capital’s iconic Kim Il Sung Square.
To punctuate his rhetoric, thousands of goose-stepping troops, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and a variety of missiles mounted on trucks then rolled through the square. Military aircraft flew in formation above head, forming the symbol of the Workers’ Party of Korea—a hammer, brush and sickle. Another group of planes formed the number 70 in the sky.
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.
“Our revolutionary force is ready to respond to any kind of war the American imperialists want,” he said, flanked by visiting Chinese official Liu Yunshan and senior North Korean officials. He said North Korea’s policy of putting its military first has made it “an impenetrable fortress and a global military power.”
Brightly colored floats and thousands of civilian marchers waving red and pink bouquets of plastic flowers followed the military show. Others held up cards to spell out Kim’s name.
As the parade ended, Kim waved to the crowd and raised clasped hands with Liu.
The afternoon rally, delayed by heavy rains the night before that required extensive mopping up of the square, was followed by torchlight rally and fireworks display. The finale was a concert on a special stage set up on a river running through central Pyongyang. Tickets for foreigners hoping to attend the concert were going for 100 euros ($114) a pop.
Altogether, it was the most elaborate spectacle North Korea has feted since Kim assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.
Though military parades fell out of fashion for about a decade starting in the 1990s, Saturday’s was somewhat more elaborate than a similar anniversary event held two years ago, an indication that rolling tanks and missiles through the center of the capital is still seen by the North Korean government as an attention-getting way of showing the world and its own people the Kim dynasty is firmly in control and its military a power to be reckoned with.
But, reflecting North Korea’s international isolation, no world leaders were present.
Liu, the No. 5 leader in the Chinese Communist party, was the most senior foreign dignitary, though Cuba, Vietnam and other countries sent delegations. Kim has yet to make state visit abroad—his highest-profile visitor to date was former NBA star Dennis Rodman—and he chose not to attend recent anniversary ceremonies held by his country’s two closest allies, Russia and China.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Liu told Kim China was willing to work with North Korea for a quick resumption of six-party nuclear talks. The talks, which aim to end the North’s nuclear program and also involve the U.S., South Korea, Russia and Japan, stalled seven years ago and Beijing has grown increasingly vocal about its discomfort with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
North Korea has shown no interest in giving up its nuclear capability, which it considers the crown jewel of its national defense strategy.
Kim didn’t specifically comment on North Korea’s nuclear or long-range missile capabilities at Saturday’s event and also didn’t have anything to say about relations with rival South Korea. He spent most of his speech touting the party’s successes in improving the lives of the North Korean people in the face of external threats since the armistice that ended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War.
An expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, a security think tank in Seoul, Jin Moo Kim, said North Korea revealed a new 300-millimeter rocket launcher. It also displayed drones and a KN-08 ballistic missile, with an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) that the country had previously shown off in 2012.
Kim said the presence of Liu might have prevented the North from revealing its most provocative weapons. Even so, further analysis of the missiles and other weapons on display—which in the past have included mock-ups or fakes—could give experts clues to the North’s actual capabilities.
Some foreign analysts also believe that by putting the particularly strong emphasis this year on making the anniversary of the party’s foundation such a lavish fete, and in delivering his own lengthy speech, Kim was trying to build up his own stature along with that of the party relative to the military. Keeping potentially powerful institutions carefully balanced against each other is a key to the stability of Kim’s dictatorial leadership.
North Korea maintains that its “military-first policy” is necessary to counter threats from South Korea and the United States, but officials have recently stressed the role of the party in improving the standard of living for the people, who are increasingly aware of how far they lag behind their affluent cousins south of the Demilitarized Zone and in economic giant China.
In the run-up to this year’s anniversary, large-scale construction and development projects have been launched and hailed with great fanfare in the state media.
But it is unclear how much of North Korea’s limited financial resources have been put into improving the lot of the majority of its citizens who are not fortunate enough to live in the showcase capital.