Military search dogs and goose-stepping trainers. Health workers wearing gas masks and red hazmat suits. And a slimmed down, beaming Kim Jong Un in a cream-colored business suit. The parade marking North Korea’s celebration of its 73rd anniversary was a marked departure from past militaristic displays, with a domestic audience worried about the pandemic likely in mind.
The parade late Wednesday centered around paramilitary organizations and public security forces protecting the capital, Pyongyang, instead of the military units that handle the most important weapons in the North Korean leader’s nuclear and missile arsenal.
In January and last October, North Korea rolled out its most provocative strategic weapons, threatening Asian rivals and the American homeland, but there was no indication the latest parade showcased ballistic weapons.
Thursday’s state media coverage of the event that began late Wednesday indicated its message was aimed at a domestic audience.
Experts say the toned-down event reflected the harsh challenges facing North Korea as its broken, mismanaged economy is further strained by continuing U.S.-led sanctions, prolonged border closures because of the pandemic, and flooding that caused food shortages in recent years.
North Korean state television, which broadcast a recording of the event on Thursday evening, showed the performers and tens of thousands of spectators roaring as Kim appeared as the clock struck midnight.
Kim, flanked by senior officials and smiling widely, kissed the children who presented him with flowers and waved to the crowd before taking his spot at a balcony overlooking the brightly lit Kim Il Sung Square, named after his grandfather who founded the nation in 1948.
Kim was visibly slimmer than at the start of the year, having lost a good deal of weight several months ago. Experts say the weight loss is likely an attempt to improve his health, rather than a sign of illness, since he has continued his regular public activity.
Paratroopers carrying North Korean flags jumped from planes, while fighter jets flew in formation, firing what appeared to be flares across the night sky. There also were fireworks and illuminated drones that formed the North Korean flag.
Kim apparently did not deliver a speech during the event.
There had been expectations that North Korea would show off missiles and other important weapons to pressure the Biden administration amid a diplomatic freeze with the U.S. after Kim failed to leverage his arsenal for economic benefits during the Trump years.
But the parade shows that North Korea is too preoccupied with its domestic problems to attempt to deliver provocative messages overseas, said Hong Min, an analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Unification.