North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his young daughter took centre stage at a huge military parade – fuelling speculation she is being primed as a future leader of the isolated country as her father showed off his latest and largest nuclear missiles.
Wednesday night’s parade in the capital, Pyongyang, featured the newest hardware in Mr Kim’s growing nuclear arsenal, including what experts say was possibly a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) he may test in the coming months.
That missile was part of around a dozen ICBMs Mr Kim’s troops rolled out at the event – an unprecedented number which underscored how he continues to expand his military capabilities despite limited resources in face of deepening tensions with his neighbours and the United States.
On Tuesday, Mr Kim took his daughter to visit troops as he lauded the “irresistible might” of his nuclear-armed military.
State media have signalled a lofty role for Kim Ju Ae. She has been called “respected” and “beloved” and a photograph released on Tuesday showed her sitting in the seat of honour at a banquet, flanked by generals and her parents.
North Korean photographs released on Wednesday showed Mr Kim, wearing a black coat and fedora, attending the parade with his wife and daughter. He smiled and raised his hand from a balcony as thousands of troops lined up in the brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after his grandfather, the nation’s founder.
The parade marked the 75th founding anniversary of North Korea’s army and came after weeks of preparations involving huge numbers of troops and civilians mobilised to glorify Mr Kim’s rule and his relentless push to cement the North’s status as a nuclear power.
Photographs released by state media showed transport and launcher trucks carrying about 10 of the country’s Hwasong-17 ICBMs, which demonstrated a flight range that would allow them to reach deep into the US mainland during a flight test last year. Those missiles were followed by another large missile encased in a canister and transported on a nine-axle vehicle.
State media reports did not immediately say if Mr Kim gave a speech at the event. The parade came after he met with his top military brass on Monday and ordered an expansion of combat exercises as he continues to escalate an already provocative run in weapons demonstrations in face of deepening tensions with his neighbours and Washington.
“This time, Kim Jong Un let North Korea’s expanding tactical and long-range missile forces speak for themselves,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“The message Pyongyang wants to send internationally, demonstrating its capabilities to deter and coerce, will likely come in the form of solid-fuel missile tests and detonation of a miniaturised nuclear device,” he said. He was referring to US and South Korean assessments the North could be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed the parade featured a variety of nuclear-capable weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea. The agency described the ICBMs as crucial weapons supporting the North’s ongoing “power-to-power, all-out confrontation” against its enemies.
Lee Sung-jun, spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a briefing that the South Korean and US militaries were closely analysing the North Korean photographs and reports to evaluate the weaponry.
North Korea is coming off a record-breaking year in weapons testing, and the dozens of missiles it fired in 2022 included potentially nuclear-capable systems designed to strike targets in South Korea and on the US mainland.
Mr Kim doubled down on his nuclear push entering 2023.
During a major political conference in December, he called for an “exponential increase” of the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear missiles targeting “enemy” South Korea and the development of more powerful ICBMs which could reach the continental United States.
North Korean state TV may broadcast the parade on tape delay later on Thursday. Analysts will then pore over the footage for clues about the country’s progress in nuclear weapons and missile technologies.
Some experts expected North Korea to use the parade to showcase a new solid-fuel ICBM, which would potentially be a crucial addition to the country’s long-range arsenal targeting the US mainland.
In December, Mr Kim supervised a test of a “high-thrust solid-fuel motor” for a new strategic weapon he said would be developed in the “shortest span of time,” which experts said likely referred to a solid-fuel ICBM.
The use of solid fuel could reduce the amount of launch preparation time and allow missiles to be more mobile on the ground. All of the ICBMs the North has flight-tested since 2017 used liquid propellants.
Analysts say Mr Kim’s decision to bring his daughter to public events tied to his military is to send a statement to the world he has no intention to voluntarily surrender his nuclear weapons, which he apparently sees as the strongest guarantee of his survival and the extension of his family’s dynastic rule.
An official from South Korea’s unification ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity during a background briefing, said it is too early to determine whether Kim Ju Ae is being groomed as the fourth heredity ruler of North Korea but said “all possibilities are open”.
The official said her repeated appearance at major events and her prominent exposure in state media is aimed at urging “ultimate loyalty” to the Kim family.