PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea is preparing to stage a major event to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military on Feb. 8 — just one day before the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Officials refuse to confirm what exactly is planned for the event.
A major show of military power could create anger in South Korea, which is hoping the games will be a symbol of peace and stability. Seoul has agreed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s last-minute proposal to send a delegation to the games and will have its athletes march together with the North Korean team under a blue-and-white “unification flag.”
Pyongyang residents have been assembling every day in temperatures hovering around minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) to practice for what is expected to be a mass rally by civilians in Kim Il Sung Square, while open-source satellite imagery obtained by outside analysts suggests military units are training at an airfield on the outskirts of the city for a possible military parade.
Over the past few days, the area around the square itself has been sporadically closed to traffic.
The activity in Pyongyang is common before major parades or rallies, which take months to organize and can involve thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civilians assembled in the square with flags, plastic bouquets or colored cards that they raise in unison to create giant slogans visible from the square’s raised viewing area.
For security reasons, North Korean officials don’t normally release details in advance about such events. Major military parades are generally attended by Kim Jong Un and other top officials.
North Korea’s state-run media hinted earlier this week that an event was in the works, saying the February anniversary, which had for decades been overshadowed by another military anniversary observed on April 25, would be marked with more significance and pomp this year.
Though the report did not explain why the change was being made, the news raised eyebrows because the February anniversary comes just a day ahead of the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Games.
It also comes as the North has been stepping up its verbal attacks on the United States for what it claims is an effort to ruin an easing of tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul ahead of the Olympics.
The U.S. has agreed to postpone joint military exercises with the South until after the Olympics and Paralympics are over, but North Korea is now demanding they be scrapped indefinitely. The North’s media has also accused Washington of trying to provoke tensions by sending aircraft carriers, bombers and stealth fighter aircraft into the region.
North Korea’s military parades are closely scrutinized for the unveiling of new missiles or other key weaponry. But with no official confirmation, it isn’t clear if the North would soften the event out of consideration for the Olympics or — conversely — build it up into an even bigger spectacle for domestic propaganda purposes and as a slap at Washington.
An analysis published Wednesday by 38 North, a website affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, showed satellite images confirming a gradual buildup of troops and equipment at a mock-up of Kim Il Sung Square at the Mirim Parade Training Facility, which is on the city’s eastern outskirts, over the past few months.
The analysis, conducted by leading expert Joseph Bermudez, suggests that by Jan. 10 “considerable progress had been made assembling troops and equipment for the upcoming parade.”
It said shelters for heavy equipment had been erected. Missiles and their transporters, along with other big vehicles and equipment, often arrive closer to the date of the actual parade and more effort is made to hide them.
None have been seen yet, the report said.