North Korea prepares major military parade on eve of Olympic Games | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 07.02.2018
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North Korea prepares major military parade on eve of Olympic Games

Pyongyang defies international pressure to cancel the show of strength of its forces, although many in South Korea say they are more concerned at the possible response from the US. Julian Ryall reports.

As many as 20,000 troops and a further 30,000 civilians are expected to gather in and around the vast Kim Il Sung Square, in central Pyongyang, on February 8 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army - a show of strength that is taking place just 24 hours before the official opening of the Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.

The timing and scale of the North's parade has led to widespread criticism, with Cho Myung-gyon, the South Korean minister of unification, saying, "It is likely to be an intimidating parade."

Woo Win-sik, floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, joined in calls for Pyongyang to cancel the parade, saying: "North Korea should take into account the concerns and fears of South Koreans. The North … needs to make efforts to host a peaceful Olympics."

Marc Knapper, the acting US ambassador in Seoul, has described the event as a "direct challenge to the international community," while US Vice President Mike Pence told reporters shortly before he left Washington on a five-day trip, which will see him attend the opening ceremony of the Games, that the North's behavior in recent weeks has been a "charade" designed to steal the limelight away from South Korea's hosting of the sporting event.

Nordkorea Raketentest (picture-alliance/AP Photo/W. Maye)

Kim Jong Un decided in 2015 to revive the February 8 occasion as a major event

Deliberately provocative?

The sense among some is that Pyongyang is being deliberately provocative by going ahead with a rally after demanding that Seoul and Washington suspend joint military exercises that were initially scheduled to overlap with the Games. And when the US and South Korea agreed to delay the exercises until after the closing ceremony, Pyongyang declared that they should be cancelled entirely.

North Korea, meanwhile, has been putting its own forces through a testing regime of military exercises and it is assumed that its scientists are pushing ahead with the development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. There are reports that it is making efforts to enhance its conventional military capabilities, such as through the construction of new bases on the west coast for the navy's fleet of assault hovercraft.

February 8 has long been regarded as a red letter day on the North Korean calendar and was in the past an occasion for the regime in Pyongyang to parade its military hardware and for the privileged residents of the capital to express their adoration for the armed forces and the ruling Kim clan. In 1978, the date was downgraded in favor of the April 25, 1932, founding of the guerrilla force that took on the Japanese colonial forces.

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The current leader Kim Jong Un, however, decided in 2015 to revive the February 8 occasion as a major event - four years after it was announced that South Korea would be hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Fortunate opportunity

"It may have been by chance that this date falls right before the opening of the Games, but it is also clearly an opportunity to promote the Korean People's Army and pride in the military," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University. "But I also have a feeling that this is only as provocative as people want it to be," he told DW.

"News of the parade has caused annoyance among some people in the South, but I would personally much rather have the North Korean military involved in this sort of ceremonial or propaganda event than out in the field conducting exercises that will improve their capabilities," he said.

Satellite images of an airfield and military bases close to Pyongyang have revealed vast numbers of military personnel apparently preparing for the occasion. Analysts have also identified what appear to be mobile anti-aircraft weapons, trucks and other vehicles, while long tents are believed to be shrouding the regime's latest ballistic missiles.

If the North goes ahead and showcases the Hwasong-14 or Hwasong-15 missiles - weapons that Kim Jong Un has publicly declared are capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets anywhere in the continental United States - Washington is likely to be incensed.

Nordkorea Militärparade Symbolbild (Getty Images/AFP/E. Jones)

If the North goes ahead and showcases the Hwasong-14 or Hwasong-15 missiles, Washington is likely to be incensed

Trump's likely response

And the likely reaction of US President Donald Trump is cause for concern in the South.

"I want to believe that the timing of the parade is by chance and as it is the 70th anniversary of the founding of their army, I do not see it as a particular provocation," said Ahn Yin-hay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.

"I want to be able to trust the North and to believe that this is a genuine sign of change in their government and that things can get better, but when we look at their previous actions, it is clear that they have never kept any of the promises that they made in the past on their nuclear weapons, for example," she said.

"But a bigger concern is the possible responses by the US," she noted. "They are talking about a ‘bloody-nose attack' or a ‘surgical strike' against one of their missile or nuclear sites. It worries me that they are seriously considering that kind of action."

The feeling among many in the South is that the US is underestimating the likely North Korean response and, even more frighteningly, Washington believes the cost in lives on the Korean Peninsula is worth paying as long as Kim Jong Un does not have a viable nuclear arsenal.

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