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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
SEOUL – NK News has obtained exclusive photos of Saturday’s “Victory Day” parade showing close-up details of North Korea’s military that tell a very different story from the sterner file photos distributed by international media.
The high resolution photos paint a different portrait to the straight-faced, goose-stepping and robotic soldiers normally associated with North Korean military parades. These images were taken minutes after the convoy passed the main square, showing the excitement of the soldiers and adding a more human touch.
They also reveal telling clues about the state of some of North Korea’s most advanced weaponry.
NK News has learnt that North Korean officials said that the “nuclear backpacks” seen at Saturday’s parade contain hazardous materials suits — not miniaturized nuclear weapons, as some media have suggested.
Hazardous suits are impermeable whole-body garments, normally worn as protection during times of radioactive, chemical or biological contamination.
Commentators at Armscontrolwonk.com also speculated that the bags could contain “repackaged DP-5B geiger counters,” a Soviet-era device used commonly to detect radiation after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
But the bottom line, however, is that there is healthy cause for skepticism about what could be in these bags — even with close up pictures.
“Everyone wants to make news about these, however, what they contain is pure speculation…They could barely contain a mask and protective overalls. In reality, it is likely that they are simply stuffed with paper or rags,” said Korean People’s Army (KPA) expert Joseph Bermudez, Jr, in an email to NK News.
“Readers need to understand is that the North Koreans know that we look at every little detail and try to gain intelligence from it. So at times they do things to ‘mess with our heads,'” Bermudez cautioned.
Next up, a shot showing two Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicles:
The photo shows the Musudan mid-range ballistic missile, covered by a tarpaulin layer.
Having never been flight-tested in the DPRK missile specialists have long debated whether or not the Musudan missile—first seen in 2012—is real or simply a mock-up.
But while some joke that the covering proves the missiles are nothing more than fragile decoys, Bermudez told NK News that they serve a very serious purpose:
“There are several reasons for tarps covering missiles on KPA transporter erector launchers. The first, and most likely in the case of this parade, is to keep the missile nice and clean for the cameras and VIPs at the parade…”
“The second is that ballistic missiles are not as resilient as most people think and they are normally covered with tarps when not in use to protect their interior components from the environment.”
“Finally, during operations thermal blankets are sometimes used in extreme cold or heat to maintain a more balanced internal temperature before launch.”
Next, we obtained a close up of a a KN-01 anti-ship cruise missile launcher accompanied by two KPA sailors and a KPA officer.
The presence of the sailor with an army officer is unsurprising, due to the fact the rocket can also be used for anti-ship attacks and the missile arsenal is subordinated to the Korean Worker’s Party navy.
But a close look at the uniform reveals some telling changes, as Bermudez explains:
“The sailors are in NCO “work” uniforms. In previous parades these units have been seen with personnel in green ground forces uniforms, but these could have been sailors in ground uniforms. It is interesting that the sailors are wearing tanker headgear.”
Close ups of the 1980s cruise missile show the stressed skin of the missile air-frame, large seams and screws, and paint brush marks.
Bermudez points out that these marks are typical of missile systems like these around the world.
“Remember that these are expendable systems and the imperfections have no appreciable effect on system capabilities,” he explains.
Closer up, what looks to have been a recent coat of paint complete with brush strokes, becomes clearer.
Despite North Korea’s penchant for domestically-produced military equipment, a close up of a passing vehicle shows the unmistakable Soviet marque of ZiL (зил).
The vehicle, a ZiL-130, is a truck first developed in 1958, used for moving troops and even carrying artillery. Bermudez explains that these vehicles are extremely common in North Korea, but that for parade purposes, a rare and extremely pristine unit is used for the drive-by.
The ZiL-130 is so prolific in Russia that a website exists for enthusiasts keen in racing the Soviet-era trucks.
A close up of what likely appears to be a target drone, perhaps similar to the ones used in recent drone and artillery test firing exercises, comes up next.
Zooming in shows how primitive this drone actually is, however.
“There do not appear to be any sensor windows or hard points to mount external sensors…While the North Korean’s call this a combat drone it could just as easily be a target drone,” Bermudez explains.
This year’s parade included several truckloads of paratroopers, which according to Bermudez, can be seen “wearing their main chutes, [but] not in full jump gear.”
In a different shot, no detail is left uncovered:
The T-55 battle tank, a Soviet classic, was also on display, 2,000 of which North Korea may possess, according to some sources:
But closeups of the body’s metalwork reveal clues about the tank’s ageing vintage:
A wide angle shot gives a glimpse of a 1989 170MM self-propelled gun passing by. These “Koksan” guns can fire artillery as far as 60km, putting parts of northern Seoul into range if positioned near the DMZ.
Zoom in, and a rare shot of the tank drivers view:
Above all, the pictures provide a unique view into the human side of the 2013 Victory Day parade.