As thousands of soldiers mass at Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang tells US to end its dangerous ‘military hysteria’
This article titled “North Korea parades military might and warns US amid nuclear test fears” was written by Tom Phillips in Beijing, Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Emma Graham-Harrison, for theguardian.com on Saturday 15th April 2017 20.04 UTC
North Korea displayed new long-range missiles that could one day threaten continental America at a vast military parade on Saturday, showcasing the isolated nation’s defiance as a US aircraft carrier group headed to the region.
Pyongyang warned it was prepared to take the “toughest” action unless the US ended its “military hysteria”, with speculation growing that the regime is preparing to conduct a sixth nuclear test.
On a sunny morning in the North Korean capital, military vehicles and tens of thousands of soldiers filled Kim Il-sung Square to celebrate the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding father, as a band played rousing military music, the instruments falling silent for oaths of loyalty to leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim, grandson of Kim Il-sung and hereditary leader of the authoritarian government, has put the country’s nuclear weapons programme at the heart of his rule. He is thought to be aiming for an arsenal large and powerful enough to deter an invasion or a first strike against it.
To do that, North Korea needs to develop nuclear weapons, shrink them to a size that can be launched on a missile, create reliable missiles that can reach the US, and finally develop launching systems quick and mobile enough to evade a pre-emptive attack. That is a huge technical challenge and the impoverished country is still thought to be some years off success. But it has been pouring resources into the project.
Weapons paraded through the capital included what experts said appeared to be two new kinds of intercontinental ballistic missile, loaded on huge trucks. They suggest that Pyongyang is working towards a “new concept” of missile that would put the heartland of the US within range, although the vast rockets on display have never been test fired and are probably a long way from deployment.
“North Korea has a habit of showing off new concepts in parades before they ever test or launch them,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California. “It is still early days for these designs.”
Also on show for the first time were multiple Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 600 miles, and are likely to be developed further. Weapons on submarines are much harder to track and destroy than missiles based on land, and would make it far more challenging for the US and its allies to try to take out all North Korean capacity in a pre-emptive strike.
“It suggests a commitment to this programme,” said Joshua Pollack, editor of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review. “Multiple SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles] seems like a declaration of intent to advance the programme.” Kim himself did not speak, but the man rumoured to be the second most powerful in the country used the parade to accuse the US of “creating a war situation”, with the recent dispatch of warships to the region.
“We will respond to an all-out war with an all-out war and a nuclear war with our style of a nuclear attack,” said Choe Ryong-hae. His remarks came days after the US military dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump issued vague but ominous threats on Twitter. “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the US, with its allies, will!” Trump said on Friday.
US officials have said the policy of “strategic patience” pursued by the Obama administration has ended, after years of diplomatic pressure and international sanctions failed to slow North Korea’s progress towards developing nuclear missiles capable of striking the US mainland.
Beijing was alarmed enough to urge both sides to step back from war, and apparently did not send a senior official to attend the Pyongyang parade, as it has often done in the past.
“We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage,” the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said on Friday, calling for talks to defuse the crisis. Urgent steps were needed to prevent “war and chaos” on the Korean peninsula, Wang added.
As North Korea’s only ally and biggest trading partner, China has come under unprecedented pressure to use its influence to persuade Kim not to risk conflict with a nuclear test or ballistic missile launch. It appears to be stepping up action behind the scenes, cutting off a key source of trade income by banning all coal shipments from February, and scaling back flights on the national airline, Air China, several weeks ago.
But diplomats say it has limited leverage over a recalcitrant client state. Pyongyang is well aware that Beijing’s concerns about its nuclear programme are balanced by fears the country could collapse, sending refugees streaming over the border, or that regime change could put a US ally on China’s doorstep.
Kim seems willing to gamble he can keep his weapons programme and his country. He did not speak on Saturday, but dressed in a black suit and white shirt and flanked by senior military and Workers’ party officials, applauded and occasionally smiled as he watched the tributes to his grandfather, who was born 105 years ago.
Residents seemed sanguine about the standoff, although strict government controls on the media, limited internet access and punishment for dissent make it hard to gauge genuine emotions.
“We don’t care whether the situation is tense or not, we’ll definitely win because we’ve got our Marshal [Kim Jong-un],” said An Yong Ae, who marched in the parade. “That’s the kind of spirit I have when taking part in today’s big event.”
But beyond the streets of Pyongyang uncertainty about where Kim’s brinkmanship and Trump’s unpredictability might lead clouded a holiday that North Koreans call the Day of the Sun.
As the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group sailed towards the peninsula in a show of force, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency warned of “merciless” retaliation against any US provocation, citing a spokesman for the general staff of the Korean People’s Army.
Trump’s decision to send warships to waters off the tense peninsula, coupled with recent US strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, was proof that Washington had chosen the path of “open threat and blackmail”, KCNA said.
“Our toughest counteraction against the US and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner so as not to allow the aggressors to survive,” it said.
It said the Trump administration’s “serious military hysteria” had reached a “dangerous phase that can no longer be overlooked”, adding: “Under the prevailing grave situation, the United States has to come to its senses and make a proper option for the solution of the problem.”
As the parade unfolded in Pyongyang, China’s state-run media said the US president was mistaken if he believed piling military pressure on North Korea would resolve the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
The Global Times said Trump’s decision to drop the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan was clearly “a new gimmick in US military deterrence” designed to intimidate Kim Jong-un.
“North Korea must have felt the shockwave travelling all the way from Afghanistan,” the Communist party-controlled newspaper said in an editorial.
However, the newspaper said the use of such a “vicious weapon” was likely to make Pyongyang more determined to upgrade its own arsenal. “[Trump] has demonstrated a certain level of obsession and pride toward US military prowess,” it said, adding that the US president “may go down in history as the ‘war president’”.
In echoes of the bellicose rhetoric that reverberated around the Korean peninsula during its last major crisis in spring 2013, KCNA said North Korea would respond in kind to any perceived US military provocation.
Referring to the country by its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it warned: “The army and people of the DPRK will as ever courageously counter those who encroach upon the dignity and sovereignty of the DPRK, and will always mercilessly ravage all provocative options of the US with Korean-style toughest counteraction.”
In a commentary published after the parade ended, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said the region was at “a critical moment in history” and a pre-emptive US strike could trigger full-scale war. It was time for North Korea and the US to strike a “grand bargain”, Xinhua said.
Agencies contributed to this report
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