Lights, drones and tears: What N. Korea hides in the spectacle of the military parade

Posted on : 2023-02-13 16:22 KST Modified on : 2023-02-13 16:37 KST
These commemorations amount to an attempt to summon the past into the present
Multiple of North Korea’s latest ICBM, the Hwasong-17, are paraded across Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Feb. 8 during a parade marking the 75th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. (KCNA/Yonhap)
Multiple of North Korea’s latest ICBM, the Hwasong-17, are paraded across Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on Feb. 8 during a parade marking the 75th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Korean society is abuzz with news about North Korea’s recent military parade. As early as a month before the event, reports drew on satellite imagery to predict that a military parade would be held on Feb. 8, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army. There was endless speculation about what new weapons would be unveiled, whether Kim Jong-un would make an appearance, and, were he to speak, what his speech would be about.

If the goal of North Korea’s military parade was to draw the eyes of the outside world, the strategy succeeded. From the initial media coverage to expert analyses, we’ll obviously all be engaged in talking about the military parade for some time. The questions we should ask are thus what information can be gained from the military parade and how useful that information will be in understanding the current situation in North Korea.

Why are military parades held on commemorative days?

A total of 13 military parades have been held since Kim Jong-un became the leader of North Korea.

Rather than being held on the same holiday each year, they’re held selectively, depending on circumstances at home and abroad. There were no military parades in 2014 and 2019, while there were two each in 2013, 2018, and 2021.

Military parades have also been held on a variety of holidays, including Foundation Day of the Korean People’s Army (Feb. 8), the Day of the Sun (the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, April 15), Foundation Day of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army (April 25), Day of the Foundation of the Republic (Sept. 9), and Party Foundation Day (Oct. 10).

The only confirmed criteria for holding a military parade is that the anniversary of the holiday in question should be a significant number — that is, one ending in zero or five. North Korea places particular importance on such anniversaries.

For example, Kim Jong-un made his first public speech after taking power in 2012 at a military parade commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, which represented the debut of the new leader for both domestic and international audiences.

But when a military parade was held in 2022 on the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of the North Korean regime (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in 2022, which was not a significant anniversary, Kim attended the parade, but he didn’t make a speech, and no new weapons were unveiled.

In short, a grandiose military parade or other military event is always held on state anniversaries that fall on a significant year to promote internal solidarity and showcase the strength of the regime. But anniversaries that don’t fall on a significant year are commemorated more modestly.

These commemorations amount to an attempt to summon the past into the present.

The commemoration of important moments from the national foundation process as meticulously and lavishly as possible in years ending in five and zero is also part of a struggle by North Korea to maintain its national identity amid its current financial hardships. In this case, the fact that it adopts the military parade as a way of commemorating national history warrants extra consideration.

Anniversaries related to the military are one thing, but the fact that such parades unfailingly occur on dates such as the birthdays of leaders and foundation days related to the state or Workers’ Party of Korea reveals something about what North Korea is attempting to remember from the past and invoke in the present.

It is seeking to underscore a grim reality where weapons and the military remain North Korea’s backbone — and where national identity is difficult to sustain without them. In effect, it is an admission that North Korea is still “at war.”

In war, the focus is on overpowering an adversary. An abundance of money and weapons enables a party to conceive of different strategies.

But North Korea’s poverty means that it does not have many cards to play. It has few convincing options beyond hoping that the other side will be cowed by its newly developed weaponry and hundreds of thousands of soldiers moving in perfect order.

In the past, when North Korea was focusing on nuclear testing and advancing its missile capabilities, it was able to combine military parades organically with its strategic weapon development. The current situation is a rather different story.

In particular, the staging of military parades at night since 2020 ironically means it has become that much more difficult to show off its powerful weapons and troops without resorting to bright lighting and camera techniques.

Given the large number of people and weapons involved in these events, nighttime parades entail that much more in the way of suffering and sacrifice — yet there’s a reason the North Korean regime insists on doing so. The use of bright lighting, drones and wide-angle lenses is the only means it has to generate the desired effects with its parade: adding shine to the worn trucks and tanks, color to the frayed uniforms, and vigor to the gaunt, darkened faces of the soldiers.

The audience for these nighttime parades comes from two main groups. There are members of the North Korean public, who are obliged to reflect on the hardships of a country that is still at war and the somber reality that they face, and there are representatives of the other party to the war, who attempt to use the weapons on display to gauge the true extent of the North’s military capabilities.

To begin with, the North Korean regime has spiced up its parades with dramatic elements as a way of winning public support. This is why recent events have so often included speeches by leaders appealing to the public’s heartstrings, along with images of soldiers shedding tears as they listen along.

For the benefit of the other side, the North goes all out to present its menacing weaponry to as strong an effect as possible.

In truth, there is no need to prove just how threatening it actually is. The goal of the parade is really to create confusion by mixing together symbols and images that are difficult to decipher.

Since it is so difficult to know the true nature of things, the information inevitably gets read along conservative lines. In the case of adversaries who do hope that with any luck the war will continue, it may cause them to overestimate the North’s military might.

It's also in the nature of weapons that even before they are put to use in combat, their mere existence is a source of fear for the other side. In that sense, they are playing their part well enough.

The considerations that go into the spectacle

A few days ahead of the latest North Korean military parade, South Korea and the US staged large-scale joint aerial exercises. They explained that the aim was to “deter” the expansion of North Korea’s “tremendous military capabilities.”

North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry immediately fired back that it intended to respond to nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons and all-out confrontation with all-out confrontation. Pyongyang is doing everything it can to find a way to stand up against South Korea and the US as they show off their capabilities in military exercises that incorporate strategic weaponry.

Lacking the means to stage military exercises on par with those of South Korea and the US, North Korea used its parade as a way of showing off its own weapons and troops. It is apparent that quite a bit of consideration goes into the massive spectacle of the North’s military parades.

We may expect to see different parties offering their assessments of the new weapons that appeared in the parade. After that, we can expect the South Korean and US governments to declare plans to commit vast amounts of money and weapons to military exercises in an attempt to suppress the “threat” of North Korea’s military might.

That’s how the tragedies that have afflicted the Korean Peninsula since its division continue to unfold today.

By Kim Sung-kyung, professor at the University of North Korean Studies

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