Seoul: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took centrestage at a massive military parade and public rally in Pyongyang early Saturday marking the 75th anniversary of the country's ruling party.
Outside observers were expecting the North to possibly unveil the latest weapons in its growing nuclear arsenal that threatens US allies in Asia and the American mainland.
In the evening, North Korean state television began airing a taped broadcast of the event, which began late Friday.
Goose-stepping troops were seen marching in the streets in front of the brightly illuminated square, as a military band performed while moving in formation, shaping the numbers “10.10,” “1945,” and “2020,” as well as a hammer and sickle — symbols of the ruling Workers' Party.
The performers and tens of thousands of spectators roared as Kim, dressed in a grey suit and tie, appeared from a building as the clock struck midnight. Kim, flanked with senior officials and smiling widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on the podium.
It's unusual for the North to hold a military parade during dark pre-dawn hours, although such conditions may provide benefits in protecting sensitive information about crucial weapons that were rolled out or creating spectacles through the use of lights.
Earlier Saturday, masked citizens lined up to lay flowers at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler, at Pyongyang's Mansu Hill. A huge street poster highlighted the ruling Workers' Party's symbol — a hammer, brush and sickle — with letters that read “Best glory to our great party.”
The North's official Korean Central News Agency said residents in Kaesong and other regions who had lost their homes to recent natural disasters marked the party anniversary by moving into newly built houses and that they praised Kim Jong Un for looking after them as “their father.”
KCNA also reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim saying that Beijing would continue to “defend, consolidate and develop” bilateral relations with Pyongyang.
This year's anniversary comes amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration and “deepening economic woes” that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim's leadership since he took power in 2011.
South Korean officials and analysts have said North Korea could showcase a new intercontinental ballistic missile or other nuclear-capable weapons during a parade, which would highlight how the country has continued to expand its military capabilities amid stalled nuclear talks.
Expressing deep frustrations over the diplomacy, Kim pledged in December to soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world” while declaring to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of “gangster-like” US pressure.
Many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the US presidential election in November, as a change in US administrations could force the country to recalibrate its approach toward Washington and Seoul.
Kim has been struggling to keep afloat an economy crippled by years of stringent US-led sanctions over his nuclear programme and ravaged further this year by border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating summer floods and typhoons that will likely worsen chronic food shortages.
The problems, combined with North Korea's depleting foreign currency reserves, are possibly setting conditions for a “perfect storm” that shocks food prices and exchange rates and triggers economic panic in the coming months, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy.
That would compound the political burden on Kim, who during a political conference in August showed unusual candour by acknowledging that his economic plans aren't succeeding.
Kim and President Donald Trump have met three times since embarking on high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018 as the North Korean leader attempted to leverage his nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security benefits. But talks have faltered over disagreements on disarmament steps and the removal of sanctions imposed on the North.