(Bloomberg) -- North Korea appears to be staging its first military parade in almost a year, providing leader Kim Jong Un a platform to show off his latest weapons after threatening to exponential expand his nuclear arms programs.
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Illuminated jets flew low over Pyongyang and music could be heard in Kim Il Sung Square in the center of the city in the early hours of Wednesday, suggesting a parade was being held, specialist service NK News reported. But there still uncertainty whether the event took place in the reclusive and secretive country, with Yonhap News Agency reporting the South Korean government expects the parade to be held later Wednesday.
Satellite images over the past several weeks have shown parade preparations underway to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its army on Wednesday. If a parade is held overnight, Kim's propaganda machine usually edits footage from the event to show on state media several hours later, with outside weapons experts set to examine the images to take stock of his arsenal.
Kim is looking to modernize and expand the range of his solid-fuel missiles, which are quick to deploy and nuclear-capable. North Korea in recent months tested new solid-fuel engines, which could be used in missiles designed to strike US military bases in Japan and Guam, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry warheads to the American mainland.
"Based on their exhibited technical expertise, I would not be surprised to see large-diameter, solid propellant missiles begin flight-testing in the next 12 months," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They've long signaled that they'd like a more responsive ICBM force. Large-diameter, solid rocket motors are essential for this."
Kim's regime last year test-fired more than 70 ballistic missiles, a record. These included short-range, sold-fuel rockets that could be deployed in a manner of minutes with ranges to hit all of South Korea and parts of Japan, as well as its new liquid-fuel Hwasong-17 ICBM, which appears to be designed to carry a multiple warhead payload.
At the start of the year, Kim pledged that his state would launch its first military satellite and develop a new type of ICBM. He also said he would increase his nuclear arsenal to stifle US and South Korean hostile acts, in a policy-setting address where he left almost no opening for a return to long-stalled disarmament talks.
It remains to be seen what sort of comments, if any, Kim delivered at the parade. Last week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the door remained shut for talks with the US on winding down its atomic arsenal, setting the stage for renewed provocations by pledging to respond to what it saw as threats from Washington.
"A review of Kim's public comments and speeches in 2022 suggests that his speech at the parade, if he delivers one, will reflect the North's shift to harder-line foreign policy and priority to the defense industry," said Rachel Minyoung Lee, regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.
Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA's Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades, said North Korea's leadership will continue to be challenged to justify increased spending on national defense amid a clearly deteriorating economic situation, particularly food availability.
Kim's decision to shut his borders during Covid slammed the brakes on trade and sent the economy into its biggest contraction in decades. At the end of last year, Kim brought his school-age daughter along to a launch of an ICBM in or her first official state media appearance for what analyst said was to show the nuclear arsenal is there to protect the next generation of North Koreans.
"To overcome this problem, North Korea will continue to tighten the noose across all realms of society on the one hand, while on the other coming up with creative and perhaps even shocking propaganda tactics to win the people's buy-in for the cause of continued development and production of weapons," she said.
--With assistance from Shinhye Kang.
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