[Feature] North Korea has little to celebrate come Sept. 9

By Jung Min-kyung

Stalemate in denuclearization talks stands in way of 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding

  • Published : Sept 4, 2018 - 15:49
  • Updated : Sept 4, 2018 - 15:49

On its Sept. 9 Founding Day two years ago, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, sending shock waves across the world with a defiant message to those who opposed the regime’s nuclear ambition.

This year, the North has entered into dialogue with the US on denuclearization. Many expect the rogue nation to convey a fresh message reflecting the shift, but experts say that the regime lacks noteworthy achievements to do so.

In his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un highlighted the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding this year, with the need to “achieve fresh victory on all fronts of building a powerful socialist country,” alluding to his hopes of making a breakthrough in improving the state of his country’s economy and diplomacy. 

North Korean soldiers salute at Munsu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea to mark the 69th anniversary of the country‘s founding on Sept. 9, 2017. (AP)

The fast-approaching day was expected to be an occasion for Kim to highlight the rewards he had extracted from the US in return for his willingness to relinquish the country’s nuclear weapons.

Kim, however, now finds himself falling behind schedule in negotiations with the US, despite his apparent high hopes amid a whirlwind of diplomacy.

“For North Korea, being recognized as a normal state is its foremost goal,” said Lim Eul-Chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Graduate School of North Korean Studies.

“It needs to establish smooth political and economic ties with other countries to achieve that goal, but with the current stalemate in its negotiations with the US, it has yet to do so. It will have to resort to talking about the importance of self-reliance -- which is not exactly an ‘improvement’ from last year.”

Talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled for weeks, with the North lambasting the US for wanting it to take denuclearization steps before offering solid incentives such as an end-of-war declaration. North Korea apparently views the US’ cooperation in officially declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to guarantee the regime’s security.

US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to postpone Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to Pyongyang, citing a lack of progress in denuclearization, has only fueled the uncertainty surrounding the talks.

The current tension stands in the way of North Korea’s attempts to cultivate relationships with neighbors such as South Korea, China and Russia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was widely expected to visit the North for Founding Day, but diplomatic sources told Yonhap News Agency on Tuesday that the Chinese government has yet to show any signs of his possible trip to the North. The news agency added that Xi appears to have a hectic diplomatic schedule in Beijing in early September.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, speaks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Dalian in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province in May. (AP)

Experts cited China’s reluctance to further complicate relations with the US as a reason behind Xi’s expected absence at the celebrations. Trump has blamed China for the slow progress on North Korea’s denuclearization.

Beijing’s cooperation is considered a key factor in the US’ pressure campaign against North Korea. China is Pyongyang’s main source of hard currency, food and fuel. About 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is estimated to go through China.

“Beijing has been engaged in a trade dispute with the US for months, and on top of that Trump is pointing fingers at China for the current stalemate in talks. There is no reason for Xi to head to North Korea at the moment and increase his chances of being used in the Pyongyang situation,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, told The Korea Herald.

The Yonhap report speculated that a ranking Chinese official may travel to North Korea on behalf of Xi.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin also has no plans to visit North Korea, Russia’s TASS reported, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said the North has not requested for a delegation from Seoul to attend its Founding Day celebrations.

Although the circumstances might force North Korea to hold a more low-key celebration than planned, there are signs that the country is preparing for a grand event.

The Unification Ministry on Monday said Pyongyang is preparing a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the regime’s founding, which prompted concerns that the US might find hints of provocation. The parades have often been a platform to showcase the country’s latest progress in its nuclear weapons program, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

However, critics downplayed the concerns, pointing out that despite the stalemate in talks, both sides seem to be willing to keep the momentum of dialogue alive.

“The parade will be carried out in a low-key manner with a more verbal emphasis on the completion of its nuclear weapons program,” said Koh.

“It is likely to focus on telling its people how it protected its nuclear power and regime under the US’ threat to strengthen solidarity between the regime and the North Korean people.”

The upcoming military parade is likely to be similar to the one staged on Feb. 8, but ICBMs believed to be capable of targeting the United States have not been seen in commercial satellite imagery gathered by Planet Labs Inc., a US-based private Earth imaging company, according to media reports.

The North also plans to revive a massive choreographed performance known as the “Mass Games,” for the first time in five years.

By Jung Min-kyung (