North Korea prepares for military parade despite pandemic fears

Satellite imagery suggests planning for a Pyongyang parade is in full swing

A submarine-launched ballistic missile is displayed in Pyongyang in 2017
A submarine-launched ballistic missile is displayed in Pyongyang in 2017 Credit: Wong Maye-E/AP

North Korea is preparing for a massive military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 75th anniversary of its ruling party next month, a series of satellite images have suggested, despite the reclusive regime’s ongoing high alert over the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The latest photos, obtained on Sunday by 38North, a US-based North Korea monitoring group, appear to show multiple military vehicles on the roads of the Mirim parade training ground, indicating Pyongyang is gearing up for another military parade featuring goose-stepping troops and new weapons systems. 

Previous images last week, provided by Maxar, a Colorado-based satellite imagery company, revealed thousands of people assembled and rehearsing in a parade formation. 

North Korea does not officially confirm military parades in advance but the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party is on October 10. Preparations for mass events at the city’s Kim Il Sung square can normally be detected by satellite some two to six months in advance. 

In the new set of pictures reported by 38 North, 40 vehicles are seen on the training ground, including a group of nine longer vehicles, three abreast, which it concludes are likely multiple-rocket launcher vehicles. Slightly smaller objects are believed to be motorcycles or small troop formations. 

“Based on the size and scope of past parades, the vehicles observed likely represent only a fraction of what will be on display during the celebration,” conclude Martyn Williams and Peter Makowsky, the researchers who analysed the imagery.  

Images released earlier this month raised speculation that Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, may be preparing to show off freshly manufactured long-range ballistic missiles, in a new show of bravado against the United States. 

Photographs of the Mirim parade ground revealed temporary structures big enough to conceal the North’s largest and longest-range missiles, perhaps including the Hwasong-15, an intercontinental ballistic missile with the potential range to hit the US mainland. 

Further pictures analysed by the website NK News also showed reinforcement work being done on the Okryu bridge, in a key location leading to the route of the parade, which would strengthen it for a heavy load. 

The preparations continue despite North Korean intensifying its emergency anti-coronavirus efforts. The hermit kingdom insists that it has no Covid-19 cases but this claim is viewed sceptically by experts.  

A satellite image shows people assembled in formation in Pyongyang  Credit: Maxar Technologies/Reuters

Last week, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said the country was taking steps to ensure that the anti-virus campaign “is waged consistently without a moment’s indolence, slackness and carelessness”.

Already one of the most inaccessible countries in the world, the North locked itself down even further in January to prevent Covid-19 spreading from China and decimating its already crumbling health infrastructure. 

Robert Abrams, the US Forces Korea commander, revealed in early September that special forces had been ordered to stop illegal border crossings at all costs. 

“They've got North Korean SOF (Special Operations Forces) out there. ... Strike forces, they've got shoot-to-kill orders in place,” he told an online conference organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. 

A nationalistic military parade may be intended to boost public morale in what has been a troubled year for the country’s 25 million people. 

The border closure with China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, has compounded economic woes from international sanctions, while the country has also been battered by typhoons, damaging vital crops.