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Signs that North Korea is planning something big for September: Blocked visas, parade practice and haircuts

This photo provided by the North Korean government purportedly shows Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles during a military parade in Pyongyang. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP) (AP)
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North Korea is planning a party. Next month, the reclusive country will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And there are signs that the event, which will take place Sept. 9, will be a celebration to watch.

Those observing the preparations for the event have spotted practice for a military parade, while tourist visas to the country have apparently been blocked — sparking speculation about who, exactly, the VIP guests could be. According to one report, a close eye is being kept on the finest details: Ruling-party youth groups have been sent around the country to keep tabs on taboo haircuts, Radio Free Asia reports.

The North Korean state cherishes anniversaries, using them to reinforce the tale of how their small, embattled state fought off bigger foes such as imperial Japan and the United States. It often uses parades on these days to send a message to these foreign rivals. For example, on the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, in April last year, North Korea used the day to show off a variety of new intercontinental missiles — an early hint of the technological advances testing would later confirm.

On last year’s anniversary in September, Kim held an event where he celebrated the work of nuclear scientists and engineers who had helped the country test its biggest-ever nuclear bomb just a few days earlier. Earlier in the year, in February, North Korea had used another military parade to display the recently tested Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 missiles that could theoretically deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States.

This year’s DPRK anniversary event will be different, however. In many ways, the messaging behind it will be more complex.

North Korea was previously happy to menace the United States and other rivals with visions of military might as tensions escalated rapidly. This June, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with President Trump in Singapore, where they agreed to work toward peace. Kim has also held several meetings with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, with both sides talking hopefully of greater integration.

The negotiations that started with these meetings have been far from conclusive. In particular, North Korea and the United States seem to be at odds over the issue of denuclearization — with Washington seeking progress on North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons before other issues, such as the long-awaited official end of the Korean War, while Pyongyang clearly views things differently.

As such, although relations are nominally warmer with the United States, a surprise Trump visit to Pyongyang on Sept. 9 looks unlikely. Instead, many are expecting a different guest — Chinese President Xi Jinping — whose presence would send a message to Washington that it isn’t the only game in town.

Either way, Sept. 9 is expected to be a big event. Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who often uses satellite imagery to keep track of North Korea’s weapons program, pointed to images from Aug. 11 that appeared to show people in Pyongyang preparing their choreography for the day.

More satellite imagery analysis published by NK News suggested that the events of Sept. 9 would, indeed, include a military parade, with an apparent buildup of military assets at an airfield in east Pyongyang that had been used as a preparations ground for previous military parades. It is unclear from the imagery what sort of weaponry might be included in the parade.

On another practical note, tour groups have said that Pyongyang has stopped issuing tourism visas for September. One group, Koryo Tours, wrote on its website that the firm had been informed “by our partners in Pyongyang that they had been instructed from above that all tourist visa applications currently underway are to be frozen.” Koryo later wrote that this applied only to tours up until Sept. 9.

Koryo speculated that the frozen visa applications suggested that Pyongyang was still working out who the VIP foreign guests attending the events Sept. 9 might be. “A higher power in the country is simply pressing pause on tourism until it is clear to them who is coming in such delegations and how many people,” they wrote in their statement.

Chinese tour groups have also said they have had their packages blocked — with North Korean authorities apparently citing “renovation” at all hotels in Pyongyang for the rest of August. There had been rumors in the South Korean media that Xi would attend in September. South Korean leader Moon is also expected to visit North Korea at some point that month.

North Korea's April 15 military parade displayed a collection of jaw-dropping warheads. (Video: Reuters)

With little official confirmation and outside access to the country limited, reports are still largely limited to rumors and speculation. Radio Free Asia cited one unnamed source in the country that the government had given out special instructions to “root out nonsocialist phenomena, such as fashion choices and hairstyles that do not fit the socialist lifestyle.”

Reports a few years ago that North Korea was mandating the haircuts of young men were largely met with suspicion from experts, who suggested that a trend toward copying Kim Jong Un’s hairstyle was just that: a trend. But there’s no denying that North Korea will be image-conscious this September — it certainly knows the world will be watching.

Read more:

Why the Korean War didn’t end — and why it could now