PYONGYANG — Troops, missiles and tanks rolled into North Korea’s historic Kim Il Sung Square Thursday in a highly-anticipated display of military might on the eve of South Korea’s Winter Olympics.
The choreographed display involved hundreds of soldiers marching in unison, some brandishing guns, bayonets and swords.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, arrived by limousine and stepped out onto a red carpet. Kim arrived to last year’s major military parade in the same fashion last year, but without his wife in tow.
International media wasn’t invited into North Korea to see the parade, but North Korean state media aired footage after it finished on Thursday.
It’s unclear if the footage was altered in any way, as North Korea state media has been caught modifying its imagery before.
Shortly before the parade was broadcast on state media, images trickled out on social media.
Michael Spavor, who runs a cultural exchange business that facilitates trips into North Korea, shared images showing what appeared to be hundreds of bystanders standing by a main thoroughfare in Pyongyang, with soldiers in trucks and atop tanks waving to them.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that as many as 50,000 people gathered in the city’s Kim Il Sung square to watch the event, which included around 13,000 soldiers. Diplomatic sources told CNN last month that “hundreds” of rockets and missiles would be featured during the display.
The parade began at 10:00 a.m. Pyongyang time, a diplomatic source with deep knowledge of North Korea’s activities told CNN. At around the same time, hundreds of North Koreans who are in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics attended a welcoming ceremony in Pyeongchang.
The North’s participation was the result of painstaking diplomatic negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang — the first of their kind in nearly two years.
North Korea is sending a delegation of athletes, performers and high-ranking officials, including the country’s premier and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be one of his most trusted advisers.
At the welcome ceremony Thursday, band members dressed in white suits and red coats played traditional music, and North Koreans, wearing red, white and blue uniforms, waved at the crowd.
A poke in the eye
Pyongyang’s decision to hold a military display so close to the start of the Games is viewed by many as a poke in the eye to the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which has gone to extra lengths to present these Olympics as a symbol of peaceful cooperation.
A spokesman for Moon announced he will meet members of the North Korean delegation, including Kim Yo Jong.
Getting the Americans and North Koreans in the same room to talk, however, is unlikely.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday “we have no intention to meet the US side during our visit to South Korea, and US Vice President Mike Pence — who is leading the American delegation — said he hadn’t requested a meeting, but “we’ll see what happens.”
While US President Donald Trump and other high-ranking officials in Washington have praised the inter-Korean talks this year, the White House has gone to extra lengths to make sure Pyongyang does not succeed in using the Games for its own PR purposes.
“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” Pence said after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Pence also announced Wednesday the Trump administration plans to unveil what he called toughest and most aggressive” sanctions yet against North Korea.