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North Korea prepares to celebrate 70th anniversary, with shows of unity and military might

North Korea prepares to celebrate 70th anniversary, with shows of unity and military might
North Korean musicians perform Sept. 8 at a concert celebrating the 70th anniversary of the nation's founding. (How Hwee Young / EPA/Shutterstock)

Workers with paintbrushes and brooms put the final touches on Pyongyang's iconic Kim Il Sung Square on Saturday as North Korea prepared for what promises to be its biggest celebration in years — the 70th anniversary of the country's official birth as a nation.

The spectacle, months in the making, will center on a military parade and mass games that will likely put both advanced missiles and leader Kim Jong Un's hopes for a stronger economy front and center.

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Although North Korea stages military parades almost every year, and held one just before the Olympics began in South Korea this past February, Sunday's parade comes at a particularly sensitive time.

Kim's effort to ease tensions with President Trump have stalled since their June summit in Singapore. Both sides are now insisting on a different starting point. Washington wants Kim to commit to denuclearization first, but Pyongyang wants its security guaranteed and a peace agreement formally ending the Korean War.

With tensions once again on the rise, a parade featuring the very missiles that so unnerved Trump last year, and led to a dangerous volley of insults from both leaders, could be seen as a deliberate provocation.

The North displayed its latest missilery in the February parade, however, and Washington hardly batted an eye. So it's possible Kim might choose to display them but give the missiles a lower profile if he makes his usual address just before the parade begins.

Either way, soon after the Sunday celebrations end, Kim will once again meet in Pyongyang with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss ways to break the impasse over his nuclear weapons.

While it remains to be seen what kind of weaponry will be rolled out Sunday, North Korea is clearly trying to switch its emphasis away from just military power to its efforts to improve the country's domestic economy.

The "new line" of putting economic development first has been Kim's top priority this year. He claims to have perfected his nuclear arsenal enough to deter U.S. aggression and devote his resources to raising the nation's standard of living.

Despite speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping would attend, Beijing instead sent its third-highest party official.

With Xi officially out, no major world leaders were expected to join in, though delegations from countries such as Syria, Vietnam and nations across Africa that have friendly relations with the North sent high-level delegations.

This year's celebrations also mark the revival of North Korea's iconic mass games after a five-year hiatus.

The mass games involve tens of thousands of people holding up placards or dancing in precise unison and are intended to be a display of national unity. This year's spectacle — tickets start at just over $100 and go up to more than $800 per seat — also has a strong economic theme.

The economy was also a big part of a concert held on the eve of the anniversary for foreign dignitaries and a large foreign media contingent allowed in for the events.

As is commonly the case, the visiting journalists were generally kept away from anything newsworthy.

On Saturday, they were bused to a cosmetics factory and a very well-funded cooperative — and not very representative — farm on the outskirts of the capital.

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