North Korea on Thursday put its most potent new military hardware on display, with supreme leader Kim Jong-un breaking out into a broad grin as he watched a parade of missiles believed capable of striking deep into North America.

The military parade on the eve of the Pyeongchang Olympics confirmed fears that North Korea would show off its most dangerous armaments at a time South Korea is seeking to host a “Peace Olympics.”

But there were signs North Korea sought to blunt the impact of its military display. International journalists normally invited to such events were barred from the country, while some other foreigners in Pyongyang were brought instead to a smaller street parade filled with smiling and cheering troops, but no missiles.

North Korean state television also did not air the morning parade live, delaying the broadcast until after 5 p.m.

In doing so it ensured that, rather than missiles, the images dominating South Korean television for much of Thursday were of a North Korean marching band belting out a song called Nice To Meet You and other cheery numbers, as a greeting for North Korean competitors arriving at the Olympic athletes village.

South Korean leadership was also preparing for the arrival of Kim Jong un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is expected to land in Seoul on Friday, the first member of the Kim dynasty to set foot on South Korean soil since separation of the two countries.

The efforts to curate an image of nice North Korea amount to “a continuous peace offensive,” said Bong Youngshik, a security specialist at Yonsei University.

Though North Korea has “hijacked the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” he said, its willingness to exercise restraint and send such an important figure south has also “raised hopes for a potential breakthrough with regard to the confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea over North Korea’s ICBMs and nuclear warheads.”

That, at least, has been the hope of South Korean President Moon Jae-in in his bid to turn the Pyeongchang Olympics into a platform for a better relationship with his northern neighbour.

But though the Olympics pageantry has lent a co-operative air to the Korean peninsula, the chances that sport could bring any lasting change appear remote.

North Korea and the U.S. will both have senior figures in South Korea at the same time – and, during opening ceremonies Friday, likely in the same stadium – but both countries said Thursday they don’t want to exchange words.

“We have no intention of meeting with the U.S. during our visit to South Korea,” said Cho Yong Sam, director-general of the North American department of North Korea’s foreign ministry, according to state media.

The U.S. has also said it is not pursuing talks with North Korea.

On Wednesday, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence called North Korea “the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet,” while the White House continues to push for the global community to level harsh measures against the country. “It’s going to take a lot more than a North Korean Olympic delegation to undermine this alliance,” Marc Knapper, the interim head of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, said Thursday. “This is a very strong alliance, and one that could withstand any kind of charm challenge or otherwise from the North.”

South Korea has been far more eager to have a conversation at senior levels.

Mr. Moon plans to meet North Korean government delegates on Saturday, his office has confirmed. Those delegates include Kim Yong-nam, the country’s titular head of state. Political analysts expect Mr. Moon will want to also meet with Ms. Kim, who is both a senior political figure and seen as close to her brother the supreme leader.

With the expected arrival of Ms. Kim, Mr. Moon can claim a historic rapprochement.

Sending her to Seoul “is an indication that Kim Jong-un has a great deal of interest in North-South dialogue,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of the Unification Strategy Studies Program at The Sejong Institute.

Ms. Kim is seen as one of the few elites in North Korea capable of speaking honestly with her supreme leader brother.

“In order for him to accurately assess the situation, he’s sending his younger sister,” Mr. Cheong said.

“If in the past there was only confrontation between North and South, now confrontation and dialogue are coexisting together,” he said.

North Korea’s willingness to dispatch a huge Olympics contingent – including athletes, cheerleaders, musicians, journalists and officials – alongside some of its top political figures amounts to a surprisingly “bold gesture” by a regime clearly attempting to “create a very favourable environment,” said Kim Jin-ah, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis.

But “I’m afraid to say that the dialogue and contact may be short-lived,” she said.

The U.S. and its allies want North Korea to discuss denuclearization. North Korea has shown no public interest in that.

And while the military parade Thursday was seen as deliberately understated, it was preceded by hours of historical and dramatic programming on North Korean state television that extolled the country’s leadership and its military.

“It was kind of like a marathon of nationalism and patriotism – it was high-key in that respect. It wasn’t low-key,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist who is a lecturer at Troy University.

For North Korea, the Olympics are “a huge propaganda opportunity,” and the country’s responses have been carefully calibrated.

It wants to show South Koreans that it is “a tolerant partner for cooperation, and present a benign image to create divisions and recruit supporters in the south,” Mr. Pinkston said.

At the international level, meanwhile, North Korea wants “to project an image as a normal country that should be accepted into the community of nations,” Mr. Pinkston said – in hopes of dividing the countries now pressuring it to abandon nuclear weapons.

“They want to undermine the sanctions regime and gain sanctions relief in any way they can,” he said.

Asia Correspondent
The Globe and Mail, February 7, 2018