Workers with paint brushes and brooms put the final touches on Pyongyang's iconic Kim Il Sung Square before North Korea held its biggest celebration in years - the 70th anniversary of the country's official birth as a nation.

The spectacle focused on a military parade and mass games that put leader Kim Jong Un's hopes for a stronger economy front and centre.

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

Kim's effort to ease tensions with US President Donald 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 denuclearisation first, but Pyongyang wants its security guaranteed and a peace agreement formally ending the Korean War.

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Participants march during a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang. Photo / AP
Participants march during a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang. Photo / AP

Kim chose to take a low-key approach yesterday, holding back the North's most advanced missiles. No ICBMs - long range missiles - were on display. The ICBMs were shown in February.

CNN reporter Will Ripley tweeted about the parade: "Soldiers marched wearing historic uniforms from different periods of North Korea's history, dating back from 1948 through today. Energy of the parade was much more upbeat and lighthearted versus previous years - not so much the military portion but definitely in civilian portion."

This year's celebrations also marked 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. The gathering includes over-the-top gymnastics and proclamations of loyalty to the isolated country's leader.

Tickets to this year's spectacle started at just over US$100 and went up to more than US$800 per seat.

More than 100,000 people have participated in past games, and in 2007, Guinness World Records said they took the cake as the largest gymnastics display in the world with 100,090 participants.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, raises hands with China's third highest ranking official, Li Zhanshu, during a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day. Photo / AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, raises hands with China's third highest ranking official, Li Zhanshu, during a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day. Photo / AP

Kim will soon once again meet in Pyongyang with South Korean President Moon Jae In to discuss ways to break the impasse over his nuclear weapons. 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 US aggression and devote his resources to raising the standard of living.

As it prepared for the celebrations, the Government reportedly stopped issuing tourist visas, and North Korean authorities blocked Chinese tour groups from visiting, saying all the hotels in the capital were being renovated. Radio Free Asia reported that the Government was also cracking down on "nonsocialist" behaviour, policing haircuts that were deemed to not be a good match for socialism. Despite speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping would attend, Beijing instead sent its third-highest party official. Delegations from countries such as Syria, Vietnam and nations across Africa that have friendly relations with the North sent delegations.

A concert was 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. They were bussed to a cosmetics factory and a very well-funded cooperative - and not very representative - farm on the outskirts of the capital.

- AP, Washington Post