In order to prepare for the use of an anti-missile defense system announced in July this year, the US and South Korea started joint drills on Aug. 22. But the exercises appeared to have heightened tensions between North and South Korea: Soon after, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un orchestrated a test of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles in what appeared to be a warning to Washington and Seoul not to invade.
Then, to celebrate the missile launch and other recent triumphs of military prowess and technology—the country had a string of successful nuclear tests earlier this year—North Korea declared Aug. 26 a “Songun” holiday, the Independent reported. The term means “military first” in English, and is derived from a policy instituted by Kim Jong-il in the 1960s that prioritized the military when it came to making national economic decisions and allocating funding. The policy led to the creation of the country’s 1.2 million-strong army.
During the festivities this past week, citizens took to the streets to celebrate with a series of mass dancing events and live outdoor concerts.
It’s hard to tell, though, whether the festive mood portrayed by the state media is real. The only local media allowed in North Korea is run by the state, and the country condemns people for releasing articles or footage without government approval. For instance, three BBC journalists were banned from the country for “speaking ill of the system,” CNN reported. Foreign journalists are barred from picking their own itineraries and leaving their hotel without supervision. All critical reviews of the nation or its “supreme leader” are suppressed. The recent celebrations are in line with the rosy picture North Korea’s leaders want to paint.
“After the successful Pyukguksong missile test, Kim Jong-un was shown hugging officials on an observation deck,” said the Independent. “State media quoted him as calling the event the ‘success of all successes.'” The largest of the celebrations was in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square—where military convoys paraded the capital’s streets, reminding them that the country is always ready for war.
State media has been signaling that the country is well prepared, should conflict arise. “Television air time has been dominated by military footage even more than usual, with soldiers seen advancing through chest-deep mud, braving ice-covered lakes and staging fight scenes featuring taekwondo moves atop a moving train,” reported the Washington Post.
North Korea has drawn international criticism for the very nuclear strategies it is applauding internally. In January, Beijing raised an alarm after North Korea undertook a nuclear test of a hydrogen bomb near the North Korea-China border, and in March, the UN issued sanctions after North Korea used banned ballistic missile technology to launch a long-range missile through the Sea of Japan.