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North Koreans celebrate anniversary

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his son and heir stood together on a podium today as goose-stepping troops carried rifles, rocket launchers and a large portrait of late President Kim Il Sung in a massive military parade marking the 63rd anniversary of the country's founding.

The Kim family was displaying its power as the country moves toward a hereditary succession and the April celebration of the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's revered founder and the father of Kim Jong Il.

The North Korean military's show of force in Kim Il Sung Square included anti-aircraft and artillery guns, multi-rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry.

This year's parade was unusual because the North normally holds such military extravaganzas in years that end with five or zero. It suggests Pyongyang is bolstering efforts to unite the country ahead of next year's centennial. The North touts 2012 as the beginning of its rise as a strong and prosperous nation.

Kim Jong Il inherited power after his father died in 1994. In September last year, the 69-year-old Kim unveiled his son Kim Jong Un as his successor, putting him in high-ranking posts. Kim could be aiming to boost his third son's role in government and military affairs even higher next year.

Progress has been slow, but there have been recent hopeful signs. A religious delegation from South Korea visited North Korea this week to attend a Buddhist service honouring a famous relic considered sacred by both countries. South Korea said today it would allow a prominent South Korean orchestra conductor to visit North Korea next week.

As soldiers and weapons paraded by today, the Kims saluted, talked briefly with each other and clapped their hands. The son stood stiffly in a black Mao suit, his hair cropped close. His father, also wearing a Mao suit and his trademark sunglasses, occasionally looked back over his shoulder to talk to aides during the parade and walked around the podium. Kim Jong Il has appeared healthy in recent months after apparently suffering a stroke in 2008.

Thousands of civilians gathered in neat rows in the square below the Kims, waving pink artificial flowers and chanting Kim Jong Il's name.

In South Korea, meanwhile, an activist said his group sent huge balloons floating into North Korea; the balloons contained US dollar bills, booklets and DVDs critical of the Kim dynasty. The North has angrily reacted to such activities taking place near the border in the past, calling them a push by the South Korean government to incite subversion in Pyongyang. Seoul denies a link to the activists.

"We want to let North Korea's people know they are being deceived by Kim Jong Il's propaganda machine," said activist Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector.

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