Screaming participants at last weekend’s Party Foundation Day military parade in Pyongyang demonstrate a twenty-five million-strong brainwashed population madly in thrall to an all-powerful dynastic dictator. Tanks, vehicles and guns parades around Kim Il-sung Square are a sign of North Korea’s ability to bring about international Armageddon.
This façade is the picture the North Koreans wants you to see.
I lived and worked in North Korea for a couple of years, attended the October 10th Party Foundation Day spectacles, and have been researching North Korea for over thirty years. In my view the reality is much more prosaic, sadder and potentially more dangerous.
For a start, only a few hundred North Koreans are invited downtown to join the official festivities. The rest of the population concentrate their energies on enjoying the national holiday from work by drinking and partying (North Korea is not a puritan culture), on one of the last days of the year that it’s possible to gather outside before the fearsomely cold Siberian winter sets in for the next five or six months.
The small numbers of invited civilians and the military participants would have the common sense to show nothing other than wholehearted enthusiasm. Most would be aware that every facial expression is being monitored by a security apparatus willing to impose arbitrary penalties for not acting correctly in what is designed as a national performance.
North Koreans may see the festivities on state television. North Korean TV frequently broadcasts military activities, but coverage is usually boring and repetitive. Everyone knows that media outputs are stringently curated by the government. There will be no surprises, unlike say a Trump event at the White House.
If anything, state TV broadcasts reinforce a sense that the government is detached from the daily reality of life of most North Koreans, who have had a particularly tough time this year, with a deepening economic crisis and resurgence of the threat of nationwide famine. A display of new weaponry and spanking new military uniforms (probably from China) is a reminder that government priorities may not accord with those of the population.
Television coverage can evoke feelings of national patriotism, but it is a mistake to equate national pride with automatic support for the North Korean government. Just as in the United States, where participating in Thanksgiving Day celebrations does not imply supports for a particular administration, North Koreans can be patriots while deeply resenting their government.
This weekend’s ostentatious display of the “largest ballistic missile in the world” was supposed to signal to the outside world that North Korea has the ability to produce sophisticated weaponry, which would make it almost immune to military intervention. Yet this attention to hardware was more of a reminder that the impetus for North Korea accelerated nuclear development came about after the rapid disintegration of the Iraqi conscript army in 1991 in the face of American airpower. At that time, North Korea’s leadership concluded that they also could not rely on a half-fed, increasingly unmotivated conscript army to withstand a sustained military conflict. In today’s marketized, consumerist society, North Korean authorities are even less confident about the willingness of young people to fight and die for a government that consistently fails to provide secure access to basic consumer goods, including food.
The parade of this probably mocked-up missile calls attention to the inefficient “make do and mend” foundations of North Korean engineering and technical capacity. The size and weight of this road-mobile missile means that it would be difficult to transport from its production base, given the absence of decent highways in the country. If loaded with a nuclear warhead and fuelled, given the risk of an accident, it would be more dangerous to North Koreans than to intended targets. Its very size also makes it visible to the highly sophisticated South Korean air defence capability.
As for conventional weaponry, Pyongyang’s military is out-of-date and inferior by far to that of the United States, South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s 700 or so military aircraft, including those flying in formation above Kim Il-sung Square last weekend, date back to the 1980s and before. In any hot conflict, they would be taken out very quickly by modern military technology.
North Korea’s adversaries worry that it would only take one successful nuclear-armed ballistic missile strike to cause catastrophic harm to the population of any city which it targeted.
Yet a North Korean first strike would face rapid, global, military retaliation. Pyongyang and likely the key ports of Chongjin and Nampo would be obliterated by massive bombing, possibly using nuclear weapons. North Korea does not possess a sophisticated missile defense capacity and could not defend itself against massive attacks. It would have no allied support. China has explicitly stated that it would not support North Korea if it initiated a military conflict. North Korea’s leadership understands very well that military conflict with the United States is unwinnable. Despite global media hyperbole, they are neither mad nor irrational and have never displayed suicidal tendencies.
Pyongyang’s military parades didn’t reveal much that we don’t know already, but it serves as a reminder of the obvious. North Korea’s expansion of ballistic and nuclear programs brings increased risk of dangerous conflict because wars are often unintended, caused by accident or unanticipated. If war broke out, weapons of mass destruction could be used by all sides. North Korea cannot win militarily, but all will lose in case of conflict. United States military war-planning anticipates millions of deaths if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. There is no military solution to the political conflict on the Korean peninsula. It is time for substantive diplomatic initiatives.
Hazel Smith is Professorial Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; and Member of the Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts as he attends a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in this image released by North Korea's Central News Agency on October 10, 2020.