PYONGYANG - North Korea is preparing to put its military hardware on show in a huge parade through Pyongyang on Saturday, the 60th anniversary of the Korean War ceasefire deal which its rulers recently announced they were ripping up for good.
The July 27, 1953 armistice ending three years of fighting that devastated the Korean peninsula is marked in polarised fashions in the two nations which have diverged beyond recognition - politically, socially and economically - in the six decades since its signing. Although the 1950-53 conflict wound up with a border drawn along pretty much the same lines as the one it started with, the North celebrates July 27 as "Victory Day" in what it refers to as the Fatherland Liberation War.
The July edition of the official magazine "Korea", handed out to foreign journalists invited to witness Saturday's celebrations, was almost entirely devoted to articles praising the wartime brilliance of North Korea's founder leader Kim Il-Sung, with grainy black and white photos of him instructing his troops.
The past week has been marked by patriotic concerts, festivals and cultural displays, including the launch of the annual Arirang mass games in Pyongyang's 150,000-seat May Day stadium, with tens of thousands of performers taking part in a song, dance and gymnastics extravaganza.
Special commemorative medals were handed out to more than 47,000 veterans and "persons of merit" judged to have made special contributions to the North's post-war construction. On Thursday, North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-Un, who took power after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, inaugurated a new cemetery in northern Pyongyang for veterans of the Korean War designated as "heroes of the republic."
Thousands of veterans and their families - the men in dark suits and the women wearing colourful, traditional hanbok dresses - cheered as Kim cut a red ribbon and laid a wreath at the cemetery's main monument, depicting the barrel of a gun and its bayonet pointing to the sky.
The main event is Saturday's parade of military hardware which will be closely watched for any evidence that the North has made tangible progress in its ballistic missile programme.
Intelligence sources cited by South Korea's Yonhap news agency said satellite imagery had shown short- and medium-range Scud and Musudan missiles on mobile launchers being prepared near the parade ground in central Pyongyang.
"There is a possibility that its long-range KN-08 missile could also make an appearance at the end," one source said.
Previous displays of long-range missiles have been dismissed by international experts as mock-ups. According to Pyongyang's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the North's new young leader - the grandson of Kim Il-Sung - will take the salute at the parade and possibly make a rare public address.
The anniversary of the armistice comes as North and South Korea are still trying to extricate themselves from the fallout from a surge in military tensions that followed the North's third nuclear test in February.
At the height of the crisis, which saw Pyongyang threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States, the North announced in March it was unilaterally scrapping the 1953 armistice and would no longer be bound by its provisions.
In the absence of any formal peace treaty, the two Koreas have technically remained at war for the past 60 years with the armistice the only recognised accord preventing a possible fresh outbreak of hostilities. In South Korea, the North's announcement was largely seen as yet another empty threat aimed at extracting concessions from Washington and Seoul. "Although North Korea has said several times it will not honour the ceasefire, it still maintains a channel of dialogue with the UN Command (UNC) in Panmunjom," a UNC official told AFP Wednesday, referring to the border truce village where the armistice was signed.
The anniversary is a far lower-key affair in South Korea, where the focus has been on recognising the contribution of foreign veterans who fought under the UN banner on the South side. Some 220 veterans from 21 countries will attend a memorial ceremony on Saturday at the National War Museum in Seoul to be addressed by President Park Geun-Hye. Park only took office earlier this year, the first female leader of a country that, in stark contrast to its impoverished northern neighbour, has developed into a regional economic powerhouse at astonishing speed.
While the shadow of the Korean War still lingers, many South Koreans, especially the younger generation, have little interest in their neighbour.
In North Korea, which maintains one of the world's largest standing armies, militarism pervades every aspect of life and is enshrined in the official "military first" policy implemented by Kim Kong-Il and followed by his son Kim Jong-Un.
Unlike the bright lights of Seoul, the nighttime bus ride from Pyongyang's international airport to the city is made through dark, almost deserted streets, with the only real illumination provided by the spotlights that pick out the giant statues and portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.
Given the country's international isolation and the impact of a series of UN sanctions imposed for its nuclear and misile programmes, the North's moribund state-controlled economy is heavily reliant on Pyongyang' s sole major ally, China.