North Korean students take part in a torch light march Monday held in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day celebrations in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Ng Han Guan | AP

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Tens of thousands of North Korean students rallied in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square on Monday night in the final major event of the country’s 70th anniversary, an elaborate celebration that has showcased the nation’s aspirations for economic growth and Korean unity.

The rally featured a sea of university and high school students carrying torches that spelled out giant slogans and words when seen from above the square. Leader Kim Jong Un did not attend.

This year’s anniversary downplayed the missiles and nuclear weapons that brought the country to the brink of conflict with the United States just one year ago.

It highlighted what has been a series of stunning recent changes for North Korea, beginning with Kim’s announcement on New Year’s Day that he would seek better relations with the South and that the North was willing to participate in the Winter Olympics held in South Korea.

He followed that up with an announcement in April that he would stop nuclear tests and long-range missile launches and claimed that, having perfected his nuclear arsenal, he was ready to pursue talks with Washington on easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. That in turn led to a flurry of summits with Beijing and Seoul and an unprecedented summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore three months ago.

Kim’s effort to present a more diplomatic and less-belligerent image was reflected throughout this weekend’s 70th anniversary events.

In a sharp contrast to its previous two parades — in April last year and just before the Olympics began in February this year — North Korea refrained from displaying its long-range missiles at the military parade it held Sunday.

It also revived its iconic mass games after a five-year hiatus with a spectacular and decidedly peaceful and forward-looking performance. At one point, the show featured giant images of Kim shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their first summit, in April, in the Demilitarized Zone that divides their two countries.

The image of the two Korean leaders was met by loud applause and cheers from the audience at the 150,000-seat May Day Stadium.

Kim himself has kept publicly quiet during the anniversary. He made no speech at the parade or at the mass games’ opening performance.

Senior North Korean officials, meanwhile, have stressed the country’s confidence in its ability to both maintain a strong military and build up its domestic economy. They have studiously avoided bragging about their nuclear weapons, but at the same time haven’t referred to any plans for denuclearization.

Kim’s moves seem to be paying off.

Trump quickly tweeted his satisfaction that no ICBMs were rolled out for the parade, which he called a “big and very positive statement from North Korea.”

“Thank you To Chairman Kim,” he added. “We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!”

Last year, Trump and Kim were trading insults and threats and Kim was launching his missiles at a record pace. There hasn’t been a North Korean launch this year, and Kim unilaterally ordered the destruction of his country’s underground nuclear test site in May.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who sent the ruling Communist Party’s third-highest official to attend as his special envoy, issued a statement saying he is willing to work with Kim to develop healthy relations and promote regional peace and stability. “I sincerely hope that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will prosper and the people enjoy a happy and healthy life,” Xi said.

With the anniversary now behind him, Kim is to host Moon later this month in Pyongyang to further discuss ways to improve North-South relations, including the establishment of a liaison office in the North’s city of Kaesong, and how to move the peace process with Washington forward.

That process has stalled since the Trump summit, with Kim insisting on security guarantees and a formal end to the Korean War as the first steps, while the U.S. wants irreversible moves toward denuclearization before it will agree to ease up its policy of sanctions and “maximum pressure.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to visit Pyongyang just ahead of the anniversary, but Trump nixed that at the last minute because he said the prospect of making any significant agreements was too low.

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