This weekend, North Korea will let Donald Trump see with his own eyes its continuing resolve to hang on to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. We will get a substantial military parade through Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square on Sunday, Sept. 9, the 70th founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Even though North Korea announced a moratorium on testing its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles—those that can hit the entirety of the United States homeland—there's nothing that would stop Kim from showing them off. And Kim also has a panoply of shorter range systems to parade before the eyes of the world—and the neighbors they could be used against, including Japan.
Indeed, this year's big show may present ample proof that North Korea has built out substantially its nuclear deterrent force, which it declared complete last November.
During his New Year's Day address earlier this year, Kim said that the country's "nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads." Sept. 9 might be the time to show that this directive was carried out. Indeed, U.S. intelligence agencies have detected signs of North Korea manufacturing new launchers and ICBMs.
If so, they will roll right through the house of cards President Donald Trump set up for himself after the Singapore summit with North Korea. With the recent cancellation of a trip to Pyongyang by his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the familiar frictions that have kept the United States and North Korea from clinching a comprehensive deal have reared their head again.
The two countries disagree on fundamental and foundational issues. North Korea disagrees that it should unilaterally disarm—something it never agreed to anyway. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is working to smooth over the president's assurances to Kim in Singapore that Washington would support a declaration to end the Korean War—a proposition that leaves many of Trump's advisors deeply uncomfortable.
On June 13, one day after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore for a historic summit, Trump took to Twitter to declare that there is "no longer a nuclear threat" from North Korea.
In the weeks since, it's become apparent that isn't the case. Not only does the nuclear threat remain, but it appears to be growing. Even Pompeo, charged with implementing the flimsy agreement that came out of the Singapore encounter, couldn't evade when asked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whether Pyongyang was still continuing to produce nuclear-warhead-ready fissile material.
So, watch closely those goose-stepping ranks of North Korean soldiers and their still-burgeoning arsenal.
This will mark the second major military parade in Pyongyang this year, and it’s expected to be significantly larger than the one in February.
China will send high-level representation. There had been much speculation that President Xi Jinping would come. Earlier this year, he accepted an invitation by Kim to travel to North Korea. But on Sunday, Li Zhanshu, the chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, will travel to North Korea instead.
Regardless, Xi remains Kim's most frequently visited foreign leader, with three meetings already this year, and while North Korea and China aren't exactly the ironclad allies they're often made out to be, Kim has made an effort to loop Xi into his diplomatic designs with the United States and South Korea. During their first meeting in March, Xi invited Kim to keep up frequent high-level meetings between the two of them—presumably to give Beijing a window into the North Korean leader's thinking.
Officially, China continues to support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Xi was wise to take his one-on-one in Pyongyang out of the public eye and under different circumstances than North Korea’s founding anniversary and a parade of nukes.
As a series of bizarre presidential tweets made clear last week, Trump is continuing to set up China as the scapegoat for the growing frictions in the diplomatic process between the United States and North Korea. Trump's theory of why talks with North Korea aren't going well is because "North Korea is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese Government," per those tweets. "At the same time, we also know that China is providing North Korea with considerable aid, including money, fuel, fertilizer and various other commodities. This is not helpful," the president added.
Had Xi decided to go to Pyongyang, the president's theory of why North Korea is not playing along with his pre-midterm election needs would have hardened. But it may harden still with Li’s presence.
If talks between Washington and Pyongyang reach a deep freeze—and they appear to be headed there—Trump will blame China and possibly turn on Kim for “betraying” him, even though in point of fact North Korea never did agree to disarm. "Complete denuclearization" means anything but unilateral North Korean disarmament.
The September parade might even see Trump revert to his old nickname of choice for Kim: “Little Rocket Man.”
Beyond the fateful Sept. 9 festivities in Pyongyang, the centerpiece event this month will be the fifth inter-Korean summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim.
This will be the third meeting between the two Korean leaders and will deal with the implementation of the April 27 Panmunjom declaration. The United States' hesitance to support a declaration to end the Korean War—a priority for both Moon and Kim, which they hope for by the end of this year—will cast a pall over the talks, no doubt.
Moreover, while the first inter-Korean summit meeting this year allowed Moon to wow Kim with promises of economic cooperation, the United Nations sanctions regime has not gone away. Moon might find himself in Pyongyang facing down a less amused Kim Jong Un, eager for prompt sanctions relief.
So, September is shaping up as an eventful month for the Korean Peninsula.
With the fizzle in U.S.-North Korea diplomacy in August, the coming weeks will underline the upcoming trajectory for diplomatic talks—and it does not appear to be trending upwards.
The high expectations that Trump set in the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Singapore summit meeting are now colliding with reality. The North Korean nuclear program isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but the Korean Peninsula is on the cusp of change.
With trips by Moon and Li to Pyongyang this month—potentially to be followed by Xi—the United States might find itself left out on the sidelines, holding out for the unattainable objective of short-term nuclear disarmament in North Korea while one missile after another is paraded through Kim Il Sung Square.