PYONGYANG, North Korea – With the international media, foreign guests and ethnic Koreans from around the region descending on their capital, North Koreans are being mobilized en masse to put the finishing touches on one of the few things their country wants the whole world to see — a lavish celebration and military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the nation's ruling party.
Masses of Pyongyang residents, many carrying bouquets of pink or red plastic flowers, gathered in public squares across the city Thursday to practice their roles in the grand show to be held on Saturday for the anniversary of the 1945 founding of the Workers' Party of Korea. The city has also undergone an extensive face-lift, with soldier-builders working around the clock to build high-rise apartments, pave roads and even put in bicycle lanes.
The spectacle promises to be the most elaborate since leader Kim Jong Un assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.
Though officials have not publicly announced the schedule for Saturday's events, the day is expected to kick off with a major military parade and mass rally on Kim Il Sung Square in the morning and climax with another mass gathering for a torchlight parade and concert to be held on a special stage set up on the nearby Taedong River, which runs through the capital.
It's not known if Kim himself will speak publicly at any of the day's events, though he did give reporters a surprise, close-up photo opportunity two years ago when the country held a similarly elaborate celebration for the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
To make sure everyone taking part in the spectacle knows their part, students, work units and other groups have filled public plazas for weeks to hone their marching, flag-waving and slogan-shouting skills. On Thursday, crowds of students waving red flags and women in brightly colored traditional clothing could be seen in the area around the square. North Korean flags lined the streets.
Open source satellite imagery suggests military units are practicing on a mock-up of the square at an airstrip farther away from prying eyes.
"We are very proud of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of our party, it's an honor for us, and with this anniversary we will demonstrate our invincible single-hearted unity," said Chang Yong Ho, a student who will be taking part.
North Korea's leadership often uses anniversaries to rally the nation behind the military or the party, while at the same time reinforcing the primacy of the leader himself. The particularly strong emphasis on making the party foundation anniversary this year a lavish fete is also seen by some foreign analysts as a sign that Kim Jong Un is trying to build up the party's standing relative to the military.
Though both institutions are strong, the power balance among various government organs in North Korea is a delicate one and maintaining that balance is a key to keeping Kim's leadership solid and unchallenged.
Giving some credence to that argument, North Korean officials have recently stressed the role of the party in improving the standard of living for the people and a rocket launch that some foreign analysts expected to happen before the anniversary now appears to be unlikely.
"Our party sees the steady improvement of the people's standard of living as its main concern above everything else," professor Kim Chang Gyong, of the North Korean Association of Social Scientists, said in an interview with an Associated Press Television News crew. "Our party is now concentrating on building an economically powerful socialist state."