Thursday marked the 109th birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un and the founder of North Korea. Known as the "Day of the Sun," the anniversary is the country's most important national holiday. It is typically celebrated with massive military parades and several cultural events.
This year, the celebration took place at Kim Il-sung Square in the capital city of Pyongyang. North Koreans were seen wearing face masks to various events at the large city square. As part of the celebration, the younger Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, watched various performances in Pyongyang.
The pair also marked the day by visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the outskirts of Pyongyang, where the elder Kim's preserved body lies in a red-lit chamber. They were joined by other officials who followed behind in a large procession.
In the square, citizens wearing traditional garb assembled in various locations for performances. In the streets, people wore face masks, although dancers for the performances had their faces uncovered. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, South Korea, noted that North Korea had brought the commemorations back to "almost normal" compared to last year when they were canceled.
Nonetheless, some key elements were missing from this year's festivities, such as the Pyongyang Marathon. The marathon generates the bulk of tourism revenue for the country. The extravagant celebration also came as a surprise because North Korea reserves military parades for anniversaries that end in zero and five.
Furthermore, the event raised doubts regarding the true situation in the secretive nation. North Korea had insisted that there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases there since last March when the pandemic began. (Related: North Koreans with COVID-19 thrown into secret “quarantine camps” to die of starvation.)
Experts find that hard to believe even though North Korea had taken some of the most drastic actions last year to nip the pandemic at the bud. It had sealed its borders in late January and stopped doing business with China. It also clamped down on smugglers and even quarantined diplomats for a month.
But the totalitarian state, aptly nicknamed the "hermit kingdom," isn't well known for its public health system. Decades of isolation have ravaged the country's public health system, leading medical experts to believe North Korea lacks the manpower and supplies to fight an outbreak. In fact, some suggest that the country's complete lack of coronavirus cases may be explained by its lack of testing equipment.
North Koreans celebrated the holiday under close surveillance by South Korea and the United States's military intelligence following its missile tests last month. In particular, North Korea had fired two cruise missiles on March 21. Four days later, it fired two short-range ballistic missiles. Testing these missiles violates sanctions set by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which is charged with ensuring international peace.
Experts have pointed out that the younger Kim, who took power in 2011 after his father, Kim Jong-il, died, has carried out projectile tests on five of the nine occasions he celebrated his grandfather's birthday.
Many political analysts suggested that last month's missile tests may be a message to U.S. President Joe Biden, especially since the launches came just days after Kim Jong-un, the younger Kim's younger sister, slammed South Korea and the U.S. for conducting joint military exercises.
She was quoted in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun as saying: "If [the United States] wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step."
However, Biden appeared nonplussed about the possible provocations. Two days after the first test, Biden said they have learned that "nothing much has changed" about the government in Pyongyang. He said the tests were "nothing new."
Experts cautioned that Biden's nonchalant attitude towards North Korea's threat could provoke top officials to conduct even more tests and "add to the dosage," as Go Myong-hyun of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies put it. "Pyongyang's modus operandi is to start small, build up the momentum of their provocations ... and give just the right amount of shock," he added.
Furthermore, Go pointed out that North Korea has been touting its nuclear prowess for a while now. It had paraded its nuclear missiles before as officials openly discussed future nuclear development.
According to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, Pyongyang is also ready to present a new submarine, which was developed and manufactured in North Korea's Sinpo South Shipyard. The submarine has nuclear propulsion and can carry three to four ballistic missiles.
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