PYONGYANG, North Korea — The secretive nation staged the biggest, boisterous military parade in its history, with up to a million people marching past the country’s leader, who warned the United States that he was "driving it into a corner."
Dictator Kim Jong Un pledged during Saturday's lavish exhibition to continue strengthening his military, which includes a nuclear weapons arm, claiming international sanctions aren’t working and that the U.S. is caught in a dilemma trying to deal with his country.
The military parade did not appear to display any new weapons, including the unmanned aerial drones many analysts expected to see.
Kim Jong Un was joined on the reviewing platform by a senior Chinese Communist Party official, said to be No. 5 in the power structure, who held the North Korean leader’s hand aloft — a sign of Chinese approval of his current policies.
The North Koreans held back from launching a long-range missile to coincide with the parade.
A North Korean official said between 750,000 and 1 million people took part in the day’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country's ruling Communist Party.
After the daytime military parade, there was a torch light display by hundreds of thousands of civilians in the center of the capital city, Pyongyang, that ended with fireworks and waves from the North Korean leader.
The main parade was partly a demonstration of mass loyalty, but also a defiant message to America, which North Korea still regards as enemy No. 1.
Kim Jong Un claimed — as the country always does — that the U.S. started the Korean War in 1950. (In fact, it began with an attack from the Soviet-backed North.) He said that since the war, the U.S. had blocked the road to his country’s advancement, but had failed as North Korea had "become a power ... which today’s military parade proved."
Tens of thousands of goose-stepping troops marched past the leader, followed by tanks and missiles. Overhead, planes flew in formation.
The procession took more than two hours to pass, with many blocks of several thousand North Koreans weeping and screaming in a display of mass adoration, bordering on hysteria, as they passed their leader.
It was part-dictatorship rally, part-old-school Hollywood extravaganza.
The echoes were clear in the massed ranks of goose-stepping troops, the red flags draped around the square and all eyes directed at a dictator wielding total power.
The Hollywood echoes were there, too. The leader’s father, Kim Jong Il, was a fan of American movies, including the Busby Berkeley films of the mid-20th century, which included minutely choreographed and costumed dance sequences. The parade was choreographed to the second, with tens of thousands waving pom-poms, women in brightly colored traditional costumes and huge blocks of people making elaborate patterns in the square.
It had the feel, too, of a mass cult, in which no one wanted to put a foot wrong and thousands vied to scream and cry more loyally than anyone else.
Only once did a young goose-stepping soldier stumble, falling close to the leader’s podium, but picking himself up quickly and rejoining the march.
Kim Jong Un is famously unforgiving of anyone who disrespects him. He executed his defense chief (it is said, with an anti-aircraft gun) allegedly for disobedience and for falling asleep at a military event at which he was present.
The generals all appeared to be awake at the latest parade. And they showed their human side before his arrival by laughing repeatedly as, one by one, Western journalists stood beside a rigid guard to have their photographs taken.
Kim Jong Un, sporting a haircut that was partly shaven above the ears, clapped enthusiastically as the mass ranks and floats passed.
For the first time, one of the floats was adorned with a picture of him, surrounded by troops waving weapons — significant because this is a country which officially adores the two previous leaders, father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim il Sung, whose portraits and statues are everywhere.
The young leader's image is rarely shown, so its appearance before the country’s hierarchy is a sign of Kim Jong Un’s growing power and reputation. He is officially know as Marshall Kim Jong Un, commander in chief of the armed forces, but his execution of his defense chief, his uncle — the country’s unofficial No. 2 — and dozens of other officials pointed to a power struggle in the early years of his rule.
The parade, which was built around him, was designed to polish his image as less the boy leader with little experience and more the tough guy with his finger on the nuclear trigger.