TOKYO – As nuclear talks with United States stall, North Korea is preparing to hold a big military parade on the 70th anniversary of the country's founding.
Satellite photos indicate troops have been practicing for weeks at a mockup of Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square. But two big questions remain: Who will attend? And will leader Kim Jong Un use the occasion to thumb his nose at Washington by displaying missiles North Korea claims are capable of striking the American heartland?
The parade will kick off a series of extravagant celebrations scheduled to mark Sunday's anniversary, including a torch parade in the capital featuring tens of thousands of North Koreans as well as the revival of the country's iconic mass games after a six-year hiatus. It's likely Kim will make a speech before the parade begins.
North Korea's military parades are always a chance for Pyongyang to generate headlines and pinch sore nerves by showing off its goose-stepping troops and its latest weaponry — often well before it's actually ready for the battlefield.
But this year's parade comes at a politically charged time, as Kim is seeking better relations with China and South Korea and has opened talks with Washington at an unprecedented level.
The process has bogged down since peaking in June when Kim met U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore. Kim is seeking to get security guarantees and a peace agreement formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War. Washington has focused on its demands for Kim to first abandon his nuclear arsenal.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is to visit Pyongyang after the anniversary to meet with Kim and try to find a path forward.
As is customary for North Korea, few details and no VIP guest list were announced in advance.
Speculation had been high that Chinese President Xi Jinping — another major player in the Korean diplomatic process and Kim's biggest financial backer — might attend the parade, or other anniversary events. But Beijing officially quashed that possibility on Tuesday. In his place will be Li Zhanshu, the Chinese ruling party's third highest official and head of its parliament.
Meanwhile, satellite imagery published by Pyongyang-watchers at the respected website 38 North suggests that, judging from the numbers of vehicles and tents at the practice site, the upcoming parade will be a large one. It could possibly be larger than the North's most recent military parade, which was held in February on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Although North Korea's military parades have in recent years culminated in displays of the country's missiles, the North keeps them under wraps until the day they are rolled out for the parades. It remains unclear from commercial satellite photos what missiles the North might choose to show off this year, though at the very least it is expected to roll out some of its short- and mid-range missiles.
Last year, a parade in April featured an array of highly sophisticated missiles that both shocked and confused many analysts who had to struggle to figure out just what was being revealed, including weapons never seen before. That event was clearly an attempt by Kim to warn the world that he was not merely bluffing in his rhetoric with the U.S.
It is possible — even likely — that the upcoming parade will be toned down to reflect Kim's less provocative posturing.
Its parade in February, while featuring its Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 ICBMs — the missiles that are believed capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with a nuclear payload — was deliberately kept low key. Foreign media were not invited and the parade was not broadcast live, or on a short delay, as is commonly the case. Dozens of international media organizations, including The Associated Press, have been granted visas to attend this year's events.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated rapidly last year as Kim and Trump exchanged insults and threats. Since January, Kim has shifted gears to a more diplomatic approach, and says his country is now focused on building its economy.
Past parades have sometimes been a mixture of military and civilian displays, usually with civilian floats hailing developments in light industry, agriculture or other sectors the government wants to highlight coming after the goose-steppers and rocketeers.
Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @EricTalmadge.