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North quietly marks army’s anniversary as virus threatens

Feb 10,2020
North Korea did not mark the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of the North’s Korean People’s Army, often an occasion for Pyongyang to show off its military prowess, with any major activities Saturday amid the country’s ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus within its borders.

The anniversary of the Feb. 8, 1948, founding of the army has usually been celebrated with large-scale events. In 2018, a massive parade marked the 70th anniversary, with tens of thousands of people gathered and weapons and other military hardware displayed.

For the 71st army founding anniversary, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year did not hold a military parade amid ongoing denuclearization negotiations with the United States. But Kim made a visit to the North’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, inspected an honor guard and made a speech there to mark the anniversary. He also attended a performance of the State Merited Chorus and a congratulatory banquet with his wife Ri Sol-ju and army commanders, which was heavily reported in state media. The anniversary day fell weeks ahead of the second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump held later that month on Feb. 27 and 28 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

This year, North Korean media didn’t report of any major activities attended by Kim to mark the 72nd anniversary, which fell on Saturday, an indication that the country could be trying to keep to a minimum large gatherings amid the virus scare.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Saturday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent a floral basket to Mansu Hill Grand Monument in Pyongyang, and that people, including young people, paid respect to the bronze statues of founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong-il to mark the army founding day.

Flower baskets were also sent from the ruling Workers’ Party, units of the Korean People’s Army, ministries and public organizations, according to the report.

North Korean state newspapers on Saturday quietly marked the 72nd founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army with editorials praising leader Kim Jong-un as “the most brilliant commander in the world.”

It added Kim Jong-un “has ushered in the highest heyday” of the development of the armed forces.

The KCNA also reported that the founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army was observed in foreign media, specifically in Nepal and Venezuela.

North Korea has been focused on preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, and spread to all regions in China, from crossing its borders.

North Korea has canceled celebratory events this year in an apparent extension of such efforts.

The foundation of the Korean People’s Army was celebrated on April 25 from 1978 to 2017. It was then moved to Feb. 8 starting from 2018 to highlight Kim Il Sung’s development of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army into regular revolutionary armed forces on Feb. 8, 1948.

Kim Jong-un has refrained from public activities since the Lunar New Year holidays. He was last spotted in public attending a New Year’s performance with first lady Ri, aunt Kim Kyong-hui and senior party officials at the Samjiyon Theater in Pyongyang on Jan. 25.

According to analysts, Kim seems to be undertaking a confinement policy avoiding exposure to crowded places amid his country’s efforts to combat the coronavirus. “The safety of North Korea’s leader is priority, and his activities are canceled even when there is the slightest cause for concern,” said Cho Sung-ryul, a senior research fellow at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy. “Until the novel coronavirus situation is stabilized, there is a high likelihood that he will not appear in places where many people are gathered.”

Cho added that North Korea amid its push for self-reliance “will be careful about any strategic provocations,” despite speculation that it may make some provocation around the upcoming birthday anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il on Feb. 16. He pointed out the North is likely to “make a decision watching the South Korea-U.S. situation.”

BY SARAH KIM, BAEK MIN-JEONG [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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