SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – North Korea held a dramatic nighttime parade Thursday featuring dogs, horses, and tractors – but no ballistic missiles – according to state media footage.
The parade held just after midnight marked the 73rd anniversary of North Korea’s national founding.
Some analysts had expected the North might use the event to display a major new weapon, as it has done in other recent parades.
Instead, the event took a more civilian theme, with horse patrols, canine units, and fire trucks rolling through Pyongyang’s central Kim Il Sung Square.
The most striking aspect of the parade may have been the physical appearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who watched the festivities while sporting a tan, Western-style suit and a slimmed-down physique.
The 37-year-old leader, whose health has been the subject of constant speculation in Western media, has lost a significant amount of weight in recent months.
North Korean state media in June acknowledged Kim’s dramatic weight loss, even acknowledging it was the subject of speculation among citizens in Pyongyang. However, it offered no more details.
Rumors about Kim’s health intensified last year after he skipped a major public birthday celebration for his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding leader. Since then, Kim Jong Un has been absent from state media for several extended periods of time without explanation.
Although media discussion about Kim’s weight often takes a lighthearted or mocking tone, his health situation is important, since he exercises authoritarian rule over a nuclear-armed country that may not have a succession plan in place.
Kim, who did not make any public remarks during the parade, was greeted by throngs of screaming soldiers, civilians, and children, many of whom cried as he entered the parade venue.
It is the third North Korean military parade in about a year and the first since U.S. President Joe Biden took office. Some analysts saw the move as a possible way to pressure the United States amid stalled nuclear talks, though it is thought to be less provocative than a major weapons test.
North Korea has rejected the Biden administration’s repeated offers to resume talks and has recently threatened a return to tensions after Washington and Seoul held annual joint military drills.
The North’s last military parade was in January when it unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. At an October parade, it rolled out its largest intercontinental ballistic missile, which appears designed to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses.
All three parades were held at night, providing more dramatic shots of missiles, other weapons, and rows of goose-stepping soldiers.
Thursday’s parade featured only small arms, such as tractors that carried light artillery and other weapons. At one point, rows of individuals marched through the square wearing what were described as domestically produced orange hazmat suits, complete with hoods and gas masks.
North Korea often holds parades on major political anniversaries, both to demonstrate its latest military developments and to bolster domestic solidarity.
“We shouldn’t overinterpret foreign policy or negotiating signals from a parade that’s primarily aimed at domestic political audiences,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“North Korean society is under tremendous stress because of decisions made by the Kim regime. So the parade is intended to show strength and serve as a quarantine morale booster,” he said.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea has enacted one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, nearly completely closing its borders, cutting off trade, restricting domestic travel. It says it has detected no coronavirus cases, though few analysts believe that.
The lockdown has come with a major economic cost. Kim has repeatedly warned of food shortages, at one point even seeming to compare the situation to North Korea’s devastating 1990s famine.