N. Korea ready for US war, leader tells lavish military parade

Pyongyang (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said he was ready for war with the United States as the nuclear-armed nation celebrated its ruling party's 70th birthday Saturday with a spectacular, mass military parade.

Tens of thousands of troops, followed by waves of tanks, armoured vehicles and ballistic missiles, goose-stepped their way through Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung Square in one of the largest ceremonial displays of military muscle the country had ever organised.

In his first public speech for three years, Kim struck a far more belligerent tone than in previous addresses, with a special message for the North's traditional enemy.

"Our party dauntlessly declares that our revolutionary armed forces are capable of fighting any kind of war provoked by the US," the young leader proclaimed to rapturous applause from thousands of top military officers and party officials assembled below his viewing platform.

The cheers were echoed by tens of thousands of flag and flower-waving participants gathered in the square named after Kim's grandfather, over which a large banner slung from a gas-filled balloon read: "Long live the invincible Workers' Party of Korea."

North Korean threats to wipe out the US and neighbouring South Korea are common-place, but this was a particularly pointed message of defiance, given in the most public of forums before the cameras of the invited international media.

-- Holding hands with China --

Kim also seized what amounted to a rare photo opportunity to underline his country's traditional alliance with China, which has shows signs of strain since he took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in 2011.

China had sent one of its top officials, politburo standing committee member Liu Yunshan, to the parade, and when Kim saluted the crowds at the end, he did so with Liu -- their hands raised and joined together.

China remains North Korea's main diplomatic protector and economic partner, but relations have soured in recent years with Beijing becoming increasing wary of Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Saturday's parade had been expected to start in the morning, but heavy overnight rain and overcast skies saw it delayed until 3:00pm (0630 GMT) when the weather broke in a blaze of sunshine and blue skies.

After Kim's 20-minute speech, the vast march-past began, headed by floats carrying the smiling images of his grandfather and father.

The overriding theme of the parade was the glorification of the ruling Workers' Party that has served at the whim of the three generations of the Kim family for the last seven decades.

-- Missiles, or mock-ups? --

After the hard-marching troops and massed bands came the military hardware -- always a focus of attention for foreign observers looking for evidence of any forward technological step in the North's military arsenal.

The display included long-range ballistic missiles the North has shown off at two previous parades in 2012 and 2013, each time triggering debate over whether they were working models or -- as more widely believed -- mere mock-ups.

The official commentary on state television, suggested the missiles -- known as KN-08s -- were "powerful tactical rockets loaded with diversified and miniaturised nuclear warheads."

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and threatened a fourth as part of a nuclear weapons and missile programme that it has pursued through a barrage of international sanctions.

The country has long claimed it has technology capable of launching nuclear bombs at its distant enemies, but experts are sceptical whether it has acquired the sophisticated expertise needed to produce such weapons.

An exhaustively researched report published this week by the US-based Institute for Science and International Security estimated that North Korea had between 10 and 16 nuclear bombs as of the end of 2014.

The report argued it was likely the country could already build a warhead to fit atop a Nodong missile -- with a range of less than 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) -- but questioned the weapon's reliability.

-- Pyongyang facelift --

Months of planning and preparation have gone into Saturday's celebrations, involving a mass mobilisation of state personnel and resources to ensure its success.

The capital was given a comprehensive makeover -- its streets lined and decorated with giant posters, red banners and national flags, many of them displaying the numerals "10-10" in reference to the ruling party's official October 10 birthday.

At the height of the parade, a squadron of antique, Soviet-made biplanes flew over the parade ground in formation, outlining the numerals "70" in another nod to the anniversary.

The North excels at choreographed displays of military muscle, but such events also highlight its diplomatic isolation.

China's Liu was the only foreign dignitary of standing at Saturday's spectacle.

Minutes after the parade ended, the square was drenched in a heavy downpour which dampened the next event -- a torchlight procession by hundreds of thousands of students.