North Korea showcases ICBMs in military parade
North Korea staged a military parade in Pyongyang on 8 February to mark the 70th anniversary of its armed forces, putting its intercontinental ballistic missiles on show just a day before the Winter Olympics open in South Korea.
The nuclear-armed North is on an Olympics-linked charm offensive – sending a troupe of performers, hundreds of female cheerleaders, and the sister of leader Kim Jong Un to South Korea.
But regiments of soldiers goose-stepped in formation through Kim Il Sung Square, followed by trucks, artillery, tanks and finally the giant missiles – as well as a band forming the word ‘Victory’ in Korean script.
Unlike the North's last parade in April 2017 state television did not show the event live, instead airing it hours later.
Fireworks went off as leader Kim Jong Un took his place on the rostrum to watch the display, along with his wife Ri Sol Ju and the ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam – who will head Pyongyang's delegation to the Olympics on 9 February.
Kim Jong Un said: ‘We ... have become capable of showcasing our stature as a world-class military power to the world.’
The military should remain on high alert to ensure that invaders could not violate the North's sovereignty ‘even by 0.001mm’, he said.
Analysts say that with the dual approach, the North is looking to normalise its status as a ‘de facto nuclear state’, and could be trying to weaken sanctions against it or drive a wedge between the South and its ally the US.
North Korea is under multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, which have seen it develop rockets capable of reaching the US mainland.
In January 2018, Pyongyang announced it was changing the date of its military commemoration from 25 April to 8 February – the day before the Games' opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, just 80 kilometres south of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.
North Korea normally invites hundreds of foreign journalists to show off the spectacle to the world but did not do so this time, possibly an indication that it wanted to control how the display is seen – which would be in keeping with the absence of live coverage.
The North's high-level delegation for the Olympics is being led by its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam, the highest-level official ever to visit the South, and also includes Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong – an increasingly powerful and influential figure.
The delegation will have lunch with the South's President Moon Jae-in on 10 February, Seoul's presidential Blue House said, after arriving by plane on 9 February.
US VP Mike Pence was due in the South on 8 February and is also scheduled to attend the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang on 9 February.
That could put him in the same room as Kim Yong Nam at a leaders' reception beforehand, raising the prospect of senior figures from the two sides meeting after a year in which their leaders traded personal insults and threats of war.
Earlier on 8 February Cho Yong Sam, a senior Pyongyang foreign ministry official, was quoted as saying the North had ‘no intention’ of meeting US authorities during the trip.
But his comments did not rule out a meeting – and nor has Pence, who lambasted the North Thursday but added: ‘There may be a possibility for any kind of an encounter with North Koreans,’ whether informal or a meeting.
Pence said: ‘We'll have to wait and see exactly how that unfolds.’
The Winter Olympics have triggered a rapid rapprochement on the peninsula, although analysts warn that warmer relations may not last long beyond the games.
Tensions soared in 2017 as the North carried out multiple weapons tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, and by far its most powerful nuclear test to date.
For months Pyongyang ignored Seoul's entreaties to take part in a ‘peace Olympics’ until Kim indicated his willingness to do so in his new year speech.