North Korea stages midnight military parade in Pyongyang featuring hazmat suits, gas masks

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North Korea celebrated ‘paramilitary and public security forces’ to mark 73 years since the founding of North Korea (KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty)
North Korea celebrated ‘paramilitary and public security forces’ to mark 73 years since the founding of North Korea (KCNA VIA KNS/AFP via Getty)

North Korea has staged a midnight military parade in Pyongyang to mark the country’s 73rd founding anniversary with a display of marching rows of personnel in orange hazmat suits and gas masks, without the usual fanfare of tanks and ballistic missiles.

In what was called a “paramilitary and public security” parade, none of the participants or audience were seen wearing masks in the pictures.

Leader Kim Jong-un, unmasked himself, was pictured hugging children and looked visibly slimmer, which became the focus of attention on social media. Wearing a light grey suit and matching tie, Mr Kim “extended warm greetings to all the people of the country” during the ceremony.

It featured rifle-carrying students, an aerial display by jet fighters, tractor-towed artillery, fire engines and health personnel in orange hazmat suits and gas masks, Korean Central News Agency reported.

Small artillery pieces that were dragged by tractors were some of the biggest weapons to be displayed, in what is being seen as a significantly less assertive exhibition by the nation, which uses military parades to show off its military power.

This was the nuclear-armed nation’s third parade in less than a year – the previous ones were also held after midnight. The parades were shown on the state television, hours after the event.

Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles are banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions, but has continued to pursue ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programmes.

In January, days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, North Korea unveiled a submarine-launched ballistic missile in a similar display.

Thursday’s parade, however, did not include any new or major weapons or missiles.

“The columns of emergency epidemic prevention and the Ministry of Public Health were full of patriotic enthusiasm to display the advantages of the socialist system all over the world, while firmly protecting the security of the country and its people from the worldwide pandemic,” the KCNA said.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Reuters that the perceived absence of strategic weapons in the parade could be to show that Mr Kim is focused on domestic issues such as Covid-19 and the economy.

“The parade seems to be strictly designed as a domestic festival aimed at promoting national unity and solidarity of the regime,” Mr Yang said. “There were no nuclear weapons and Kim didn’t give a message while being there, which could be meant to keep the event low-key and leave room for manoeuvre for future talks with the United States and South Korea.”

China, which is one of North Korea’s strongest political and economic allies, sent a congratulatory letter to Mr Kim on the occasion.

“I am confident that under the firm leadership of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, headed by comrade General Secretary [Kim Jong-un], the North Korean people will be able to build a better country based on solidarity and progress,” Xi Jinping wrote in the letter, the state-run China Central Television reported.

But North Korea shut its borders even with China and severed ties with rest of the world in 2020 to prevent coronavirus cases creeping into the country. It imposed stringent lockdown measures, which led to food shortages in the country, later acknowledged by Mr Kim.

As of 19 August, North Korea has recorded no cases of Covid-19, the World Health Organisation said. But critics are skeptical of this claim.

South Korea’s military said on Tuesday that it was closely monitoring North Korea amid signs the country was preparing to hold a new military parade to showcase its growing nuclear and missile capabilities.

One of the most important national days for North Korea, 9 September marks the day when, in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea proclaimed independence – three years after the liberation of Korea from Japan by Soviet and US forces.

The Soviet-backed North Korea was declared an independent nation after the formation of US-backed Republic of Korea in the south.

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