By Mark Tokola
North Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of its state on September 9 in a notably non-belligerent fashion. Troops paraded, but no long-range missiles were displayed. Apart from the parade, there was a traditional mass gymnastics performance at the May Day Stadium, and a “National Meeting,” at which the official head of state, 90-year-old Kim Yong-nam made a speech devoid of hostile rhetoric towards the United States (or indeed any mention of the U.S. at all). There were no major announcements or surprises to mark the day. Despite the massed events and (normal) fireworks, it was a rather subdued affair.
Kim Jong-un did not make a founding day speech, which was unusual but not unprecedented. He had not so in 2014 or 2016 either. It may have been easier for someone to praise his achievements rather than doing so himself on such a special occasion or having Kim Yong-nam speak may have been part of Kim Jong-un’s efforts to shore up the appearance of a normal state apparatus.
Kim Yong-nam’s speech focused on North Korea’s achievement of a “fully-fledged, independent, and sovereign state in the international arena.” He described North Korea’s foreign policy principles as being “independence, peace, and friendship.” He pledged that North Korea will “strive hard for improvement of North-South relations and national unification, eternal peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and building of a new, just world.” Reviewing North Korea’s 70-year history, he said that the country’s lack of experiencing political upheaval is proof that it had “never made the slightest mistake.” Kim Young-nam appealed to all North Koreans to strengthen “the country’s most powerful weapon: single-minded unity and politico-ideological might.” His speech was all very peaceful.
Not only were ICBMs missing from the day but, contrary to earlier speculation, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was also a no-show. He was represented by the number three in the Chinese government, Li Zhanshu, who has the title “Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the PRC,” but who might best be thought of as Xi Jinping’s Chief of Staff. Li often accompanies Xi on foreign trips. During Li’s visit to Pyongyang he held a meeting with Kim Jong-un and delivered to him a congratulatory letter from Xi Jinping. According to the North Korea state press, Kim Jong-un offered to Li to step up high-level visits between Beijing and Pyongyang and to “deepen the strategic mutual understanding” between the two countries. More notably, the press reported Li Zhanshu as having assured Kim Jong-un of “the firm stand of the Chinese party and government to strive for the sustainable and stable development of China-DPRK relations no matter how the international situation may change.”
What meaning can we draw from the absence of ICBMs, anti-US rhetoric, and Xi Jinping from the big 70th anniversary events? On the former, the absence of long-range missiles in the parade made less of a statement than would have their presence. At a moment when North Korea is reaffirming its commitment to denuclearize (details to follow), parading them would have been singularly provocative. Anti-U.S. rhetoric would also have been inconsistent with Kim Jong-un’s public pronouncements that he and President Trump have established a trusting relationship. North Korea’s long-term intention, i.e. how it defines denuclearization of the peninsula, is unclear but it publicly remains on a diplomatic path. It was careful that its 70th anniversary program not deviate from that. At the same time, North Korea did not trumpet its success in negotiations with the United States. It appears to be in a wait-and-see mode.
We do not know the reason why Xi Jinping decided not to attend the September 9 celebrations. It may be that at a moment when President Trump is accusing China of obstructing the denuclearization talks (as he did in his August 24 tweets), for Xi to have been there might have increased the perception that China has a controlling stake in North Korea’s policy decisions. Or, Xi Jinping may be reserving his visit to Pyongyang for a more decisive moment in the negotiations. Or, the Chinese may have simply felt it demeaning for Xi Jinping to have joined a contingent of foreign leaders which comprised: the President of Mauritania, a Vice President of the Cuban Council of Ministers, a Deputy Regional Secretary from Syria’s Baath Socialist Party; and the Chair of the Russian Federation Council.
Nevertheless, Li Zhanshu is an important figure and for him to attend the events and to meet separately with Kim Jong-un shows that relations between China and North Korea are much better than they were before Kim Jong-un’s June visit to Beijing. The absence of ICBMs and the peaceful rhetoric that marked the 70th anniversary may have been as much a nod to China as it was to keep the U.S.-North Korean talks on track.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Uwe Brodrecht’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.