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Did North Korea really spend $2 billion on an enormous party?

North Korean men and women wave decorative flowers and the ruling Workers' Party flag during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 10. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
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Last week, North Korea had a party. A really, really big party. Children danced through the streets of Pyongyang while soldiers marched. Tanks, missiles and all sorts of other very expensive military equipment were paraded in front of enormous crowds. High-profile dignitaries like Liu Yunshan, the fifth-most-senior official in China’s Communist Party, laughed and waved alongside Kim Jong Un, North Korea's supreme leader.

The parade marked the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, the communist organization that still holds power in the country. Even by the standards of the North Korean state, it was a little excessive. You can't help but ask: What on Earth does something like this cost?

One slightly unbelievable figure is doing the rounds: Approximately $2 billion.

That figure comes from the Daily NK, an online publication based in Seoul staffed largely by defectors, who report that officials themselves have told North Koreans that was the cost of the event. The publication cites a number of sources in the North who expressed anger that the state would spend that much foreign currency on the parade, a figure which it describes as "the equivalent of 20 years of potential food security for a largely impoverished population." The story also adds to a litany of other complaints about the parade, including that the march itself left some soldiers and students with pleurisy and other ailments.

While the Daily NK is opposed to the North Korean regime, it is generally considered a relatively reliable source of information from the North. However, a number of experts contacted by WorldViews expressed extreme skepticism about the number it published. It's worth pointing out here that the Gross National Income of North Korea has been estimated at just under $30 billion (though it's suspected that even North Korea may not know the real value of its economy). So $2 billion would be an implausible, perhaps even impossible, chunk of that.

Even if the figure is wrong, there's little doubt that the regime spent a lot on the parade and that the money could probably have been spent helping North Koreans. Things have gotten so tight in the notoriously cash-strapped country in recent years that it is thought to have sent tens of thousands of workers abroad to earn money for the state.

Adam Cathcart, a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds and editor of the SinoNK Web site, told WorldViews that while the North Korean state has recently made efforts to highlight its spending on relief for North Koreans in need (such as those displaced by a flood in Rason, a city in the north of the country), profligate spending remains a theme in Kim's regime. Cathcart noted the supreme leader's apparent fondness for black Mercedes Benz sedans as one example of this extravagance in action.

The huge scale of last Saturday's party may well have something to do with the problems with legitimacy Kim has been having, The Washington Post's Anna Fifield noted before the event. The North Korean leader appeared to be trying to emphasize his links to his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, a guerilla fighter and founder of the North Korean state still widely revered in the country. A lavish party might help the North Korean public overlook Kim Jong Un's youth, inexperience and coddled upbringing.

Even in a totalitarian state like North Korea, legitimacy is important. It's also possible, however, that it can be bought for less than $2 billion. "Parades and parties take a great deal of fuel and logistical work, but you don't have to pay students in the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League to lift their torches," Cathcart says, "nor do they need special clothing to do their routines."

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