Big celebration for N Korea's Workers' Party

Big celebration for N Korea's Workers' Party
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) watches a performance, "Song of Youth Following the Sun", given by the Art Squad of the Central Committee of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 10, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - When it comes to grandiose, mass displays of state muscle and military grandstanding, North Korea has few equals.

This Saturday, the reclusive, and diplomatically elusive North is set to put on its biggest show to date - a goose-stepping, tank-rumbling, missile-bristling tribute to the Workers' Party that has served at the whim of three generations of the ruling Kim family.

Speculation that the party's 70th anniversary celebrations would be topped by a long-range rocket launch has receded, but the centrepiece mass parade in Pyongyang is still expected to provide a masterclass in synchronised military swagger.

The event was announced back in February and months of intense preparations have been ramped up further in recent weeks, with the capital plastered with posters and banners extolling the party's achievements.

South Korea's defence ministry said military hardware to be used in Saturday's parade - including armoured vehicles and mobile rocket launchers - were being gathered at an airfield just outside Pyongyang as early as July.

According to Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news site with contacts in North Korea, prioritising the preparations above all else has led to shortages in Pyongyang and a surge in prices of everything from electronic goods to food and home fuel.

"People are getting increasingly resentful," one source in the capital was quoted as saying.

Domestic and foreign audience 

Large-scale parades - one of the rare occasions when North Korea opens its doors to the foreign press - serve multiple purposes.

For the domestic audience, they are a display of national pride and patriotic fervour that emphasises, above all else, support for and loyalty to the supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un.

To the outside world, they are a show of strength and defiance, closely linked to the country's missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

Held in Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang, the events are closely watched for glimpses of any new hardware that might signal a new step in the North's military development.

Kim Jong-Un is almost certain to preside over Saturday's celebrations as he did two years ago, but there will be little foreign representation.

In 2013, traditional ally China sent its vice president and this time will dispatch another top-ranking official, Liu Yunshan, a member of the Communist Party's politburo standing committee.

But ties have become strained, with Beijing increasingly annoyed at Pyongyang's provocative antics and refusal to heed China's calls for restraint, especially over its nuclear weapons programme.

In the weeks leading up to Saturday's parade there has been growing speculation that North Korea would mark the party anniversary with a satellite rocket launch and, in the following weeks, a fourth nuclear test.

UN resolutions ban Pyongyang from using ballistic missile technology and its space programme is widely seen as a front for developing an inter-continental ballistic missile.

But despite numerous hints from Pyongyang to the contrary, satellite images and South Korean intelligence have uncovered no tangible signs that a rocket launch is imminent.

A family affair 

The party being feted on its 70th birthday was originally conceived, under Soviet patronage, as a classic Communist entity guided by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

But as the original leadership of Kim Il-Sung spawned a personality cult that went into overdrive in the late 1960s, "it was redefined as the party of the leader, and has remained so ever since", said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a veteran North Korea watcher.

And leadership in North Korea is a strictly family affair.

After Kim Il-Sung's death in 1994, power passed to his son Kim Jong-Il who instituted a "military first" policy that saw a shift in influence from party officials to the generals.

When Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un, took over following his father's death in 2011, the party regained some lost ground as he replaced scores of powerful military commanders and forged alliances with influential party officials.

"But membership is not as coveted as it once was," says Michael Madden, publisher of NK Leadership Watch, a site devoted to research and analysis on North Korea's political and military elite.

The emergence of private market enterprise in North Korea has provided an alternative path to "get ahead" and its participants don't want to be saddled with the often time-consuming duties that party membership demands.

"But then party patronage and connections are crucial to doing business at any level, so even if you aren't in it, you still need it," Madden said.

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