North Korea gets ready for a party

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY GILES HE­WITT

When it comes to grandiose, mass dis­plays of state mus­cle and mil­i­tary grand­stand­ing, North Korea has few equals.

This Satur­day, the reclu­sive, and diplo­mat­i­cally elu­sive North is set to put on its big­gest show to date — a goos­es­tep­ping, tank-rum­bling, mis­sile-bristling trib­ute to the Work­ers’ Party that has served at the whim of three gen­er­a­tions of the rul­ing Kim fam­ily.

Spec­u­la­tion that the party’s 70th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions would be topped by a long-range rocket launch has re­ceded, but the cen­ter­piece mass pa­rade in Py­ongyang is still ex­pected to pro­vide a master class in syn­chro­nized mil­i­tary swag­ger.

The event was an­nounced back in Fe­bru­ary and months of in­tense prepa­ra­tions have been ramped up fur­ther in re­cent weeks, with the cap­i­tal plas­tered with posters and ban­ners ex­tolling the party’s achieve­ments.

South Korea’s de­fense min­istry said mil­i­tary hard­ware to be used in Satur­day’s pa­rade — in­clud­ing ar­mored ve­hi­cles and mo­bile rocket launch­ers — were be­ing gath­ered at an air­field just out­side Py­ongyang as early as July.

Ac­cord­ing to Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news site with con­tacts in North Korea, pri­or­i­tiz­ing the prepa­ra­tions above all else has led to short­ages in Py­ongyang and a surge in prices of ev­ery­thing from elec­tronic goods to food and home fuel.

“Peo­ple are get­ting in­creas­ingly re­sent­ful,” one source in the cap­i­tal was quoted as say­ing.

Do­mes­tic and For­eign Au­di­ence

Large-scale pa­rades — one of the rare oc­ca­sions when North Korea opens its doors to the for­eign press — serve mul­ti­ple pur­poses.

For the do­mes­tic au­di­ence, they are a dis­play of na­tional pride and pa­tri­otic fer­vor that em­pha­sizes, above all else, sup­port for and loy­alty to the supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.

To the out­side world, they are a show of strength and de­fi­ance, closely linked to the coun­try’s mis­sile and nu­clear weapons pro­grams.

Held in Kim Il Sung square in Py­ongyang, the events are closely watched for glimpses of any new hard­ware that might sig­nal a new step in the North’s mil­i­tary de­vel­op­ment.

Kim Jong Un is al­most cer­tain to pre­side over Satur­day’s cel­e­bra­tions as he did two years ago, but there will be lit­tle for­eign rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

In 2013, tra­di­tional ally main­land China sent its vice pres­i­dent and this time will dis­patch another top-rank­ing of­fi­cial, Liu Yun­shan, a mem­ber of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s polit­buro stand­ing com­mit­tee.

But ties have be­come strained, with Bei­jing in­creas­ingly an­noyed at Py­ongyang’s provoca­tive an­tics and re­fusal to heed China’s calls for re­straint, es­pe­cially over its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

In the weeks lead­ing up to Satur­day’s pa­rade there has been grow­ing spec­u­la­tion that North Korea would mark the party an­niver­sary with a satel­lite rocket launch and, in the fol­low­ing weeks, a fourth nu­clear test.

United Na­tions res­o­lu­tions ban Py­ongyang from us­ing bal­lis­tic mis­sile tech­nol­ogy and its space pro­gram is widely seen as a front for de­vel­op­ing an in­ter-con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

But de­spite nu­mer­ous hints from Py­ongyang to the con­trary, satel­lite im­ages and South Korean in­tel­li­gence have un­cov­ered no tan­gi­ble signs that a rocket launch is im­mi­nent.

A Fam­ily Af­fair

The party be­ing feted on its 70th birth­day was orig­i­nally con­ceived, un­der Soviet pa­tron­age, as a clas­sic Com­mu­nist en­tity guided by Marx­ist-Lenin­ist ide­ol­ogy.

But as the orig­i­nal lead­er­ship of Kim Il Sung spawned a per­son­al­ity cult that went into over­drive in the late 1960s, “it was rede­fined as the party of the leader, and has re­mained so ever since,” said An­drei Lankov, a pro­fes­sor at Kook­min Univer­sity in Seoul and a vet­eran North Korea watcher. And lead­er­ship in North Korea is a strictly fam­ily af­fair. Af­ter Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, power passed to his son Kim Jong Il who in­sti­tuted a “mil­i­tary first” pol­icy that saw a shift in in­flu­ence from party of­fi­cials to the gen­er­als.

When Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s death in 2011, the party re­gained some lost ground as he re­placed scores of pow­er­ful mil­i­tary com­man­ders and forged al­liances with in­flu­en­tial party of­fi­cials.

“But mem­ber­ship is not as cov­eted as it once was,” says Michael Mad­den, pub­lisher of NK Lead­er­ship Watch, a site de­voted to re­search and anal­y­sis on North Korea’s po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary elite.

The emer­gence of pri­vate mar­ket en­ter­prise in North Korea has pro­vided an al­ter­na­tive path to “get ahead” and its par­tic­i­pants don’t want to be sad­dled with the of­ten time­con­sum­ing du­ties that party mem­ber­ship de­mands.

“But then party pa­tron­age and con­nec­tions are cru­cial to do­ing busi­ness at any level, so even if you aren’t in it, you still need it,” Mad­den said.

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