PYONGYANG • Thousands of North Korean troops followed by artillery and tanks paraded through Pyongyang yesterday as the nuclear-armed country celebrated its 70th birthday, but it refrained from displaying the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that have seen it hit with sanctions.
Instead, leader Kim Jong Un showed off his friendship with China, raising the hand of President Xi Jinping's envoy as they saluted the crowd together afterwards.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, was proclaimed on Sept 9, 1948, three years after Moscow and Washington divided the peninsula between them in the closing days of World War II.
Such set-piece dates are a mainstay of the North's political calendar, and have for years been opportunities to demonstrate progress in its quest for a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.
But too militaristic a display this time might have risked upsetting the recent diplomatic dalliance on the peninsula, after Mr Kim's Singapore meeting with US President Donald Trump in June and ahead of his third summit with the South's President Moon Jae-in due in Pyongyang later this month.
In a tweet yesterday, Mr Trump praised the less provocative display, calling it "a big and very positive statement from North Korea".
"Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!" he added.
After a 21-gun salute, dozens of infantry units marched through Kim Il Sung Square, named after the North's founder. The current leader - his grandson - looked on from a rostrum.
Mr Li Zhanshu, one of the seven members of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the country's most powerful body, sat next to him.
China's state broadcaster said Mr Kim told Mr Li that North Korea is upholding the denuclearisation agreement it reached with the US this year. It added that Mr Kim said he hoped the US would keep to its side of the agreement.
Beijing is its neighbour's key diplomatic protector and trade partner, and after years in the deep freeze over the North's weapons ambitions, ties have warmed rapidly this year, with Mr Kim visiting China thrice to meet Mr Xi.
Mr Xi yesterday sent a message to Mr Kim congratulating him on North Korea's anniversary, Xinhua reported.
Armoured personnel carriers, multiple rocket launchers and tanks were on display, with biplanes flying overhead in a "70" formation.
Finally came the missiles. But the only ones on show were short-range battlefield devices, the Kumsong-3 anti-ship cruise missile, and the Pongae-5 surface-to-air weapon.
There was no sign of the Hwasong-14 and -15 rockets that can reach the mainland US and changed the strategic balance when they were first tested last year.
"It looks like the North Koreans really tried to tone down the military nature of this," said Mr Chad O'Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group.
Pyongyang has not publicly stated a willingness to give up the weapons it has spent decades developing, but it has been on a diplomatic charm offensive for months.
In April, Mr Kim declared that the North's nuclear programme had been successfully completed and "socialist economic construction" was the new strategic priority.
In a speech yesterday, ceremonial president Kim Yong Nam lauded the country and its army as "the strongest in the world", but did not mention nuclear weapons.