For a government that has struggled for decades to provide electricity to, or even feed its people, the North Korean regime does a few things well: Nuclear weapons (unfortunately), long range missiles (ditto), mass games, and parades. Indeed, the parade through central Pyongyang has become a staple of the imagery that North Korea uses to intimidate the world. In addition to thousands of goose-stepping soldiers—images that can’t help but conjure memories of the late 1930s—the regime also displays military hardware at the parades. In recent years, it has showed off its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the long-range missiles that North Korea could one day use to attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Note also that the regime often invites foreign media to these parades: They're conducted largely for foreign consumption.
At this weekend’s parade though,, held to celebrate the unfortunate 70th anniversary of the regime, the ICBMs were strangely absent. Instead, economic development was the primary theme. CNN, citing “experts,” reported that that the decision might have been made to “avoid antagonizing US President Donald Trump.”
That may be true, but Kim Jong-un’s uncharacteristically dovish presentation likely had another audience in mind: South Korean president Moon Jae-in, as well as the broader South Korean public.
Moon, historically somewhat sympathetic to the regime north of the 38th parallel, is desperate to strike some sort of accord with Kim Jong-un. To that end, he’s made it plain that he wants to begin serious economic cooperation with the North. That will likely mean lavishing aid on the Kim regime, and also re-opening the industrial zone at Kaesong, where North Korean laborers serve South Korean industrialists. (The lion’s share of their $80 million in annual wages goes to the regime, by the way. Perhaps needless to say, it’s a despicable arrangement.) Moon will be traveling to Pyongyang on September 18 to hold a summit with Kim Jong-un. He wants to come back having struck some sort of deal.
That would have been a whole lot harder for Moon to do had Kim engaged in a belligerent display at the parade this weekend. Moon is already facing political pressure from foreign policy hawks (don’t forget, he won the presidency with only 41 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and the other two candidates took much more hawkish positions on the North than he did), and Kim brandishing the ICBMs would have made it all the harder for the South Korean president to claim that North Korean dictator is negotiating in good faith. In other words, Kim just made it a whole lot easier for Moon to write him a check. Mission accomplished once again.