PYONGYANG, North Korea—China just put on a big military parade, a few months after Russia did the same. But there’s no country more adept at putting on elaborate, massive displays of state power than North Korea, the undisputed goose-stepping capital of the world, and next month, Pyongyang will stage what is likely to be its biggest celebration in years.
Question is: Will it come with a rocket launch? A nuclear test? Or both?
North Korea is already in high gear as it prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. Students and workers are being mobilized by the thousands to practice their parts in the grand show—some carrying wooden torches, others bouquets of red plastic flowers. Shock brigades of soldier-builders are toiling around the clock to paint bridges, build stages and finish high-rise apartments. To pretty up the capital, Pyongyang now even has bicycle lanes.
What exactly is in store for the Oct. 10 anniversary remains a mystery. The government has been typically mum on its plans, though a military parade and appearance by leader Kim Jong Un would seem to be pretty safe bets.
Adding to the buzz, senior officials speaking in interviews with the North’s state-run media over the past few days have dropped hints that the real fireworks might not happen in Pyongyang at all.
On Monday, the head of North Korea’s space agency said the country has the right to launch rockets any time it sees fit and suggested Pyongyang is preparing to put its second satellite into orbit. He didn’t explicitly state a launch was in the works, and open-source satellite imagery doesn’t show a rocket is being readied. But a new space mission would have great domestic propaganda value, and many North Korea watchers have been expecting one around the time of the anniversary.
The North claims its rockets are meant for scientific purposes. Washington, Seoul and their allies believe they are used as a pretext for testing long-range missile technology, which it is banned from doing under U.N. sanctions.
The rocket remarks were followed Tuesday by a senior nuclear official’s claim that the North has “rearranged, changed or readjusted” the plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex. He said it has started normal operations and scientists have improved the capabilities of the country’s nuclear weapons “in quality and quantity.”
Both avenues of research are essential to North Korea’s military strategy of perfecting a nuclear weapon small enough to be mounted on a reliable, long-range missile that could hit targets in the United States. Every long-range rocket launch and nuclear test gets Pyongyang closer to that goal.
“If (North Korea) launches a missile or tests nuclear weapons, it is a grave provocation. And it is a military threat,” South Korea Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters in Seoul on Wednesday. “We will properly and sternly deal with the matter in cooperation with the international community.”
That might be jumping the gun a bit.
South Korean officials have said they are confident they could detect preparations for a nuclear test a month in advance, and one week for a rocket launch. Last week, a South Korean Defense Ministry official told the National Assembly no such indications have been observed. In a report published Tuesday by the U.S.-based 38 North website, analysts Jack Liu and Joseph Bermudez, using satellite imagery, also reported no signs of an imminent launch from the North’s Sohae facility.
Keeping North Korea-watchers guessing about whether it will launch or test helps Pyongyang ensure that its October spectacle gets attention. The event will be something to see in any case.
After North Korea held its last big blowout, for the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 2013, military analysts were busy for months trying to understand the capabilities of all the missiles it rolled out. There was also an ominous-looking unit bearing the international symbol for radioactivity—probably troops who specialize in nuclear, biological or chemical attacks.
Analysts determined that one missile was at best a mock-up and possibly a flat-out fake. The truck it was paraded on turned out to have likely come from China, which sparked a debate in the U.N. over whether international sanctions had been violated.
Kim Jong Un watched the parade from a special reviewing stand in one of his first public appearances before a big international audience after assuming power in December 2011. The North invited hordes of foreign journalists, and Kim gave them a huge surprise by making himself available for photos at a newly opened war museum.
Photographers found themselves suddenly within arm’s length of the world’s youngest and most mysterious leader. Some journalists shouted questions but were ignored.
For the upcoming event, flights to Pyongyang are already fully booked. Hotels normally used for foreigners are filling up so fast that some visitors have been warned they may have to double or triple up.
The guest list of foreign VIPs remains a matter of speculation, but may be less than stellar.
Kim, who has yet to make a state visit abroad, chose not to travel to Beijing or Moscow to attend their recent parades, both of which marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. So it is unlikely that China or Russia, North Korea’s primary allies, will send their leaders to Pyongyang.