North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended a massive civilian parade in the capital, Pyongyang, celebrating a milestone birth anniversary of his state-founding grandfather in which thousands marched in a choreographed display of loyalty to the Kim family, state media said Saturday.
The reports didn't mention any speech or comments made by Kim during Friday's event and it appeared the country passed its biggest holiday without showcasing its military hardware, amid heightened tensions over its nuclear program.
Commercial satellite images in recent weeks have indicated preparations for a large military parade in Pyongyang, which could take place on the April 25 founding anniversary of North Korea's army and display the most advanced weapons in Kim's nuclear arsenal, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
There's also expectation that Pyongyang will further escalate its weapons testing in the coming weeks or months, possibly including a resumption of nuclear explosive tests or test-flying missiles over Japan, as it attempts to force a response from the Biden administration while it's preoccupied with Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a rivalry with China.
State media images showed Kim waving from a balcony looking over Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after his grandfather, as huge columns of people carrying red plastic flowers and floats with political slogans marched below.
Ri Il Hwan, a member of the ruling Workers' Party Politburo, issued a call for loyalty, saying in a speech that North Koreans will "always emerge victorious" under Kim's guidance. It appeared Kim didn't deliver a speech and state media didn't mention any comments regarding the United States or rival South Korea.
The parade came hours before thousands of young people performed a mass dance in the square as fireworks launched from a nearby riverbank lit up the night sky.
Kim Il Sung's birthday is the most important national holiday in North Korea, where the Kim family has ruled under a strong personality cult since the nation's founding in 1948. This week's celebrations marking the 110th anniversary of his birth came as his grandson revives nuclear brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear power and remove crippling economic sanctions.
North Korea has opened 2022 with a slew of weapons tests, including its first flight test of an ICBM since 2017. South Korea's military has also detected signs that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground it partially dismantled weeks before Kim's first summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018.
Kim Jong-un's defiant displays of his military might are also likely motivated by domestic politics, experts say, as he doesn't otherwise have significant accomplishments to trumpet to his people after a decade in power.
His stated goals of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and bringing economic prosperity to his impoverished populace derailed after the collapse of his second summit with Trump in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea's demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a limited surrender of its nuclear capabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed further shock on his broken economy, forcing him to acknowledge last year that the North was facing its "worst-ever situation."
Sung Kim, the top U.S. official on North Korea, is scheduled to visit South Korea next week for talks on the international community's response to the North's recent missile tests.
North Korea has recently resumed its trademark harsh rhetoric against its rivals. One of its international affairs commentators labeled U.S. President Joe Biden as "an old man in senility," while Kim's powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, called South Korea's defense minister "a scum-like guy" and threatened to annihilate South Korea with nuclear strikes.
"Kim Jong-un's stated goal of deploying tactical nuclear weapons, Kim Yo Jong's recent threats toward Seoul and satellite imagery of tunneling activity at Punggye-ri all point to an upcoming nuclear test," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "Additional missile launches are also expected for honing weapons delivery systems."
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.