Despite the twin crises of a pandemic and a recession rocking the world, North Korea has insisted that it remains the Communist wonderland that it has been for decades. It cites zero coronavirus cases and periodically releases pictures of smiling citizens. On October 10, 2020, all eyes were on the hermit kingdom for clues on how it had fared as the rest of the world came to a halt. The results were surprising and mixed.
October 10th, or Party Foundation Day, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party, one of the most important dates on the North Korean calendar. In the past, the Party has used key anniversaries to showcase special events: the Monument to Party Founding was unveiled in 1995, on the party’s 50th anniversary, and two large plants were revealed in 2015, on its 70th anniversary. In 2020, the Party turned 75.
It was a sight that seemed out of place in a year inextricably defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Packed crowds of tens of thousands watched as regiments of soldiers marched in flawless formation. The smiling, maskless Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un lorded over his parade. Several close aides and decorated generals, also maskless, sat beside him. And the clear highlight of the parade—North Korea’s biggest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to date—rolled through the parade atop an army-green carrier.
Although no flight tests have yet been reported, the implications of a weapon that size are chilling. With a huge two meter diameter, it could easily mount several nuclear warheads, as well as multiple combustion chambers to fuel a range that extends to the entirety of the United States. Despite all efforts from the international community to slow and prevent the rise of yet another nuclear power, the poverty-stricken nation now has the missile capacity to punch significantly above its weight.
Another weapon of interest was sighted in the parade: a new Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM). A somewhat underrated development amidst the shadow of its ICBM cousins, the SLBM nevertheless has worrying ramifications. Although analysts estimate that North Korea’s new SLBM will not be able to reach US territory (such as Guam or Hawaii) without exposing their own navy to attack, their quiet but steadfast development edges the world closer to another point of tension, another chip in Kim’s hand, and another threat Washington and Seoul must consider in their pursuit of a peaceful Korean peninsula.
Rounding out the trifecta of surprises at the 75th Party Foundation Day celebrations was something that the world had never seen before: the tears of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un.
Rounding out the trifecta of surprises at the 75th Party Foundation Day celebrations was something that the world had never seen before: the tears of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. On national television, Kim thanked the Korean people and apologised for the difficulties that they had endured over the past year. Even though the coronavirus might not have affected the isolated nation in the form of dry coughs and lockdowns, a closed border with China meant that their economy was, by and large, crippled. This reality comes amidst international sanctions that have left North Korea near friendless, relying almost entirely on its neighbour to the north.
Such an emotional and unprecedented response by the dictator highlighted other sources of grief that have plagued the North Korean people in 2020. In a climate catastrophe, the northern nation faced torrential rain and flooding, killing at least 22 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of crops. Or perhaps this even hints towards a coronavirus outbreak that the country refuses to publicly admit. Korea-watchers have long speculated hushed-up cases, especially given its close relationship with China where the virus reportedly began. Some pictures from earlier months suggest lockdowns in certain regions and citizens wearing masks.
Or perhaps this is just a clever play by the young Kim to win the hearts of his people so that their grief and anger and resentment do not bubble too close to the surface. It has been a difficult year and the North Korean people have suffered a lot. It is difficult to gauge such a reclusive nation.
But regardless of the hardships that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may or may not have endured, October’s celebrations at least gave the image of a recovery. Tens of thousands of people gathering in the city square seemed to be proof to the world that the pandemic is truly absent in the country—or, at the very least, that the worst might be over. Its new ICBM and SLBM demonstrate that the North Korean threat is still very real and cannot be ignored or belittled. And the timing is no accident—with the US presidential election less than a month after the new weapons showcase, Kim is clearly sending a message for the next president to take him seriously.
The new President Joe Biden will likely adopt a reversal in Trumpian foreign policy with regards to North Korea. Gone are the days of calling the Korean dictator “rocketman” but likely gone too are the summits of Singapore, Panmunjom, and Hanoi. Biden will likely revert back to traditional Obama-era policy when he was Vice President: a policy of “strategic patience.” Despite the bluster of new ICBMs, Biden is unlikely to be provoked in the same way President Trump was in the past. The question, then, will be how a desperate Kim might act to get American and international attention.
The question, then, will be how a desperate Kim might act to get American and international attention.
At the end of the fireworks and synchronised marches, we are left with a dictator in tears and two new weapons. As surreal as this all might seem, it is yet another reminder that this small nation—tucked away behind the Asian giants of China, Japan, and South Korea—is a force of power and resilience that must be acknowledged.