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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea unveiled what defense analysts say appears to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile and other new weapons systems during a carefully choreographed, pre-dawn military parade Saturday.
The missile appears to be the largest-ever, road-mobile ICBM displayed by North Korea, leading many analysts to believe it may be the "new strategic weapon" promised at the beginning of the year by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim oversaw the parade, which is part of festivities meant to mark the 75th anniversary of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party of Korea.
Dressed in a Western-style gray suit and tie, Kim repeatedly appeared to cry while delivering a speech to thousands of cheering, maskless attendees packed tightly into Pyongyang's central Kim Il Sung Square.
"We will continue to strengthen war deterrence for self-defense to deter, control and manage all dangerous attempts and threatening acts, including ever-growing nuclear threats, from hostile forces," Kim said during a 25-minute speech.
Though he did not directly mention the United States, Kim sent "warm regards" to South Korea, expressing hope that the two countries could soon improve relations that have worsened this year.
Kim also apologized for economic woes, acknowledging his country faced "unexpected challenges" this year, including major floods and the coronavirus pandemic.
But Kim claimed not a "single person" in North Korea has fallen victim to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, echoing a North Korean government assertion that experts say is practically impossible to verify and almost certainly incorrect.
Though North Korea has attempted to completely seal its borders because of the pandemic, the parade projected a sense of confidence, with no North Korean leaders, parade participants or spectators wearing masks or engaging in social distancing.
The parade was held during pre-dawn darkness but appeared on North Korean state TV Saturday night. The heavily pre-produced broadcast included sweeping drone shots of the showcase capital, as well as rows of weapons and goose-stepping soldiers.
Among the weapons displayed was an ICBM that was carried by a transporter erector launcher with 22 wheels. North Korea's Hwasong-15, previously thought to be its biggest missile, was carried on a vehicle with only 18 wheels.
The missile is the largest road-mobile, liquid-fueled missile anywhere, tweeted Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"This would appear to be the new strategic weapon," Panda said.
At the beginning of the year, North Korea's Kim promised to unveil a "new strategic weapon" and said he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear or long-range missile tests.
Displaying a weapon at a parade, rather than by staging a test launch, might be a less provocative way for Pyongyang to demonstrate its military capabilities. U.S. President Donald Trump has warned Kim against any major provocations near the Nov. 3 U.S. election.
During the parade, North Korea also displayed a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), analysts said. SLBMs are mobile and easier to hide, adding an unpredictable component to North Korea's arsenal.
Boosting national pride
The event was set to be a major celebration of Kim's accomplishments of the past five years, although the country is actually facing significant challenges.
International sanctions continue to batter North Korea's economy, after the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks in 2018 and 2019 failed to reach the point of permitting sanctions relief.
North Korea also experienced a much worse than usual typhoon and monsoon season, leaving crops devastated and thousands of homes destroyed.
Its economy has also been hit hard by strict anti-pandemic measures, including border closures, that have sharply reduced trade with neighbor and economic lifeline China.
Faced with such hardships, a parade might be meant to boost national pride and domestic solidarity, analysts said.
"This is particularly important when policy errors, natural disasters, international sanctions and the global pandemic have caused the Kim regime to fall short of its economic promises," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.
"Due to unmet economic ambitions and unfinished construction projects, the 75th Workers' Party anniversary is perhaps not everything Kim envisioned. But it is an impressively large gathering during a global pandemic, suggesting North Korean authorities are concerned more with political history and national morale than with preventing a COVID-19 superspreader event," Easley said, describing an event where the virus is spread to a large number of people.