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North Korea on Saturday celebrated the 75th anniversary of its ruling party, with outside observers waiting for leader Kim Jong Un to take centre stage in a massive military parade in which the North was expected to possibly unveil the latest weapons in its growing nuclear arsenal.

It wasn't immediately clear, however, whether any events were proceeding or had already taken place. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said there were signs that the North had mobilized “large crowds and equipment" for a military parade at Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square during the early hours of Saturday, although it left open the possibility that the activities could have been a rehearsal.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the US and South Korean militaries were closely analysing information about the parade and weighing the possibility that it was indeed the main event.

It was unclear whether Kim was in attendance.

It would be unusual for the North to hold a military parade during dark pre-dawn hours, although such conditions may provide benefits in protecting sensitive information about crucial weapons that were rolled out or creating spectacles through the use of lights.

A programming schedule announced by North Korean television didn't include plans to broadcast a military parade and mass rally, which South Korean government officials and private analysts had said were being prepared.

While North Korean TV had provided live coverage of a 2017 military parade honouring the birth of Kim's late grandfather and state founder, Kim Il Sung, the next two military parades in 2018 were recorded and broadcast later.

Masked citizens lined up to lay flowers at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current ruler, at Pyongyang's Mansu Hill. A huge street poster highlighted the ruling Workers' Party's symbol — a hammer, brush and sickle — with letters that read “Best glory to our great party."

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said Saturday that residents in Kaesong and other regions who had lost their homes to recent natural disasters marked the party anniversary by moving into newly built houses and that they praised Kim Jong Un for looking after them as “their father".

KCNA also reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Kim saying that Beijing would continue to “defend, consolidate and develop" bilateral relations with Pyongyang.

This year's anniversary comes amid deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration and deepening economic woes that analysts say are shaping up as one of the biggest tests of Kim's leadership since he took power in 2011.

South Korean officials and analysts have said North Korea could showcase a new intercontinental ballistic missile or other nuclear-capable weapons during a parade, which would highlight how the country has continued to expand its military capabilities amid stalled nuclear talks.

Expressing deep frustrations over the diplomacy, Kim pledged in December to soon unveil a “new strategic weapon to the world" while declaring to bolster his nuclear deterrent in face of “gangster-like" US pressure.

But while he may put on a huge display of his military hardware for the anniversary, analysts say Kim will likely avoid direct or harsh criticism toward Washington during his speech at the event and instead focus on a domestic message of unity in the face of economic hardship.

Many analysts believe North Korea will avoid serious negotiations or provocations before the US presidential election in November, as a change in US administrations could force the country to recalibrate its approach toward Washington and Seoul.

Authoritarian North Korea is keen about anniversaries, and this week's festivities were earmarked for years in advance as a major event to glorify Kim Jong Un's achievements as leader.

But there hasn't been much to celebrate lately as Kim struggles to keep afloat an economy crippled by years of stringent US-led sanctions over his nuclear program and ravaged further this year by border closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating summer floods and typhoons that will likely worsen chronic food shortages.

The problems, combined with North Korea's depleting foreign currency reserves, are possibly setting conditions for a “perfect storm" that shocks food prices and exchange rates and triggers economic panic in the coming months, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy.

That would compound the political burden on Kim, who during a political conference in August showed unusual candour by acknowledging that his economic plans aren't succeeding.

Kim and President Donald Trump have met three times since embarking on high-stakes nuclear diplomacy in 2018 as the North Korean leader attempted to leverage his nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security benefits. But talks have faltered over disagreements on disarmament steps and the removal of sanctions imposed on the North.

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