Experts have warned that a huge parade in North Korea to mark the 75th anniversary of the Worker’s Party could turn into a coronavirus ‘super-spreader’ event.
Thousands of troops in close formation are due to goose-step through the streets of Pyongyang on Saturday, watched by crowds of civilians and North Korea’s leaders – including Kim Jong-un himself.
Satellite images have revealed troops packing into the capital and rehearsing in formation ahead of the parade , which is also expected to feature North Korea’s most advanced missiles.
The event is designed to be a major show of strength for Kim – who is thought to have suffered a recent bout of ill-health himself – but observers warn it could backfire by spreading coronavirus among the military.
North Korea is preparing to host a major parade with troops marching in tight formation (pictured rehearsing) – but experts warn it could turn into a coronavirus super-spreader event
Troops have been arriving in the capital by bus and are being housed in a large hotel, where Covid precautions are likely not being followed since the country denies having any cases
North Korea is also expected to use the parade to show off its latest missiles, which are being kept under wraps at vehicle storage compounds such as this one in Pyongyang
The parade is intended to be a major show of strength for North Korea and Kim Jong-un, who is thought to have suffered a recent bout of ill-health
Harry Kazianis of the Center for National Interest warned that the event could become a hotbed of disease unless ‘extreme precautions’ are taken.
And such precautions seemed unlikely, he added, as wearing masks would not be in keeping with the message of strength that Kim wants to portray.
North Korea has officially denied having any cases of coronavirus, though reports suggest the ruling party has admitted to its own citizens that the disease has entered the country.
‘Clearly masks and missiles don’t mix,’ Mr Kazianis added.
Kim is also widely expected to use the event to show off some new weaponry, after threatening to do so in December last year.
Some experts believe the Hermit Kingdom is close to completing a ballistic missile submarine, and that a test-launch of a ballistic missile from the sub is imminent.
However, others have cautioned that a test during the Worker’s Party event is unlikely, and that Kim will use the parade to show off his collection of missiles.
Among the things that North Korea could showcase would be a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile – the kind capable of hitting the United States.
Experts believe North Korea has long been working on a solid-fueled ICBM, which is quicker to launch than the country’s current liquid-fueled rockets – allowing it to respond to attacks faster or launch a surprise attack more easily.
Another major development would be an ICMB with multiple nuclear warheads in its nosecone, increasing the number of targets Kim could hit if he launched an attack.
Alternatively, Kim may simply display more of the missiles he already has along with more launch vehicles – showing off an increased capacity to strike enemies in the event a war breaks out.
Indeed, the presence of any ICMBs at the parade would be viewed as a warning sign.
Kim has refrained from showing off the weapons at all since 2018, as he entered into nuclear talks with Donald Trump which also saw him halt long-range weapon tests.
The event will also attract thousands of citizens to the capital (pictured above, tourist buses in the capital), as experts warn it could help spread the virus
A major feature of the weekends’ celebrations is likely to be the unveiling of a major new hospital in Pyongyang, which workers are putting the finishing touches to
Major refurbishment works have also taken place at Kim Il-sung square, where the parade will take place, in preparation for the show
But with talks now stalled, Kim may be keen to put the US back on alert that the hiatus will not last forever, without upsetting either Trump or his potential replacement with a full-scale launch.
Saturday’s anniversary comes during a difficult year for North Korea as the pandemic and recent storms add pressure to the heavily sanctioned country.
Pyongyang closed its border with China in January to try to prevent contamination, which USFK Commander Robert Abrams said effectively ‘accelerated the effects’ of economic sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Last week Pyongyang’s troops shot dead a South Korean citizen who had drifted into its waters, apparently as a coronavirus precaution, causing outrage in the South.
The incident sparked a rare apology from Kim himself.
The parade will aim to send the domestic audience a message that ‘despite the economic hardships they face, they are a militarily strong nation’, Town said.
The tightened coronavirus border controls have also hampered construction of the flagship Pyongyang General Hospital, whose opening has been flagged as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations.
North Korea has long used giant infrastructure projects to try to burnish the government’s credibility, and Kim has berated officials several times over its progress.
Photos carried by state media in recent weeks show work on the building’s shiny white exterior is in its final phases, but analysts remain sceptical.
Kim is expected to use the event to show off his missiles including ICBMs – the ones capable of striking the US – which he has not done since nuclear talks began with Trump in 2018
Experts have also suggested that North Korea could use the event to show off a new ballistic missile submarine, though say an actual test-firing of a missile is unlikely
The hospital is likely far from being ‘functional’, said Soo Kim of RAND Corporation.
‘North Korea lacks the medical technology, skills, infrastructure, and manpower to adequately provide legitimate medical care to the population,’ Kim added.
‘So the hospital will become another fixture of North Korea’s ‘Potemkin village’.’
Even so, the building is likely to ‘form one of the main propaganda pillars to this weekend’s events’, a report by observer group 38 North said.
Workers also carried out major renovations of Kim Il Sung Square, where the parade and other events are expected to take place.
‘Major political events are great opportunities for the North Korean leadership to promote domestic unity and inspire the people’s pride in the country’s power,’ said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent analyst and former North Korea open source intelligence expert in the U.S. government.
‘Since North Korea has been affected by prolonged COVID quarantine measures and lately the floods, the leadership will really want to make the best of the upcoming celebrations to do just that.’
North Koreans jailed for their Christianity or watching a foreign TV show are forced to drink water containing the ashes of dead inmates
North Korean prisoners are forced to drink river water tainted with the ashes of their dead fellow inmates – and all for the crime of watching a foreign soap opera.
The horrific reality of life within Kim Jong-un’s gulags was exposed by former prisoners who survived the living nightmare of Chongori concentration camp.
It’s a camp where North Koreans can find themselves locked up for acts as innocuous as watching South Korean TV or following the Christian faith.
The Kyo-hwa-so (reeducation camp) No. 12 – is in North Hamgyong Province, in North Korea’s far northeast. The size of the facility is around six acres and it is estimated the 4,000 men and 1,000 women are detained there
A map of worksites surrounding the main prison complex, including copper mines and a crematory
One former prisoner recalled: ‘Every Monday, we burned the corpses… there’s a place that looked like a house, and we piled the corpses in the round tank in it.
‘The facility was drenched in the smell of blood and rotting or burning corpses. ‘After burning the corpses, they stacked up ashes next to the cremation site. The ashes were used as a compost for farming.
‘When it rained, the ashes flowed into the river, and the prisoners drank the river water and used it to shower.’
They also recalled how, on rainy days, when the wood got wet, bodies would not burn as well.
On one occasion, the former prisoner even found themselves tripping over disembodied toes.
They said: ‘I fell on something. At first, I thought I was stuck on a tree, but when I looked closer, it was a toe.
A detailed map of the facilities at Kyo-hwa-so, a gulag which houses around 5,000 prisoners
‘I climbed the mountain following the ash and there were five toes right in front of me. I was so surprised.’
Conguri has a high mortality rate due to ‘injury, illness, or physical and mental abuse by prison officials’.
The escapee, whose identity has been protected, made their horrifying disclosure in a new report published by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
The report also revealed that the bodies of dead prisoners were piled in a storeroom prior to cremation, where they would be partially eaten by rats and decay would set in.
In addition, HRNK have used satellite imagery to reveal the location of the crematorium, the prison buildings and forced-labour worksites.
One of these worksites is a copper mine, which is believed to be further contaminating the river water that prisoners have to drink.
Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. the lead author of the report, said: ‘We know people are suffering beyond imagination.
A crematory used for disposing the bodies of the many inmates who die at the gulag
‘The atrocities committed throughout North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment require the immediate attention of the international community.’
Amanda Mortwedt Oh, who co-authored the report, added: ‘The lack of human dignity afforded to prisoners is beyond repugnant, and the Kim regime must be held to account for such actions.’
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of HRNK, revealed the nature of the so-called crimes many inmates were accused of.
He said: ‘Behaviour that is perfectly normal in most other countries is criminalised in North Korea.
‘This includes practising religion, especially Christianity, and possessing a Bible, and accessing information from the outside world, in particular any South Korean material like soap operas.
‘It even includes “mishandling” or “disrespecting” a newspaper page containing the picture of the North Korean leader or his father or grandfather.
‘Anything along those lines results in imprisonment at a North Korean detention facility.’