Smartphones, traffic jams, restaurants and taxis – North Korea's capital is showing signs of prosperity as it prepares for a display of military muscle and propaganda to mark the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party. The parade, due to be held on Saturday 10 October, promises to be the most elaborate spectacle since Kim Jong-un assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011.

With foreign journalists arriving for the celebrations, the city has been given an extensive face-lift, with soldier-builders working around the clock to build new high-rise apartment blocks and paved roads with bicycle lanes. Pyongyang is far and away the most developed city in North Korea and is even relatively comfortable for the increasingly affluent segment of its populace.

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The 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang reflects the sunDamir Sagolj/Reuters
Inside North Korea
A newly built residential building is seen at sunrise in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Hostesses prepare hot dogs at a floating restaurant in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
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Soldier-builders perform their morning activities on banks of the Taedong River in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A woman uses her phone to film from behind a curtain at the Kim Il-sung StadiumDamir Sagolj/Reuters

To make sure the parade goes smoothly, participants have filled public plazas for weeks to hone their marching, flag-waving and slogan-shouting skills. Crowds of students waving red flags and women in brightly coloured traditional clothing can be seen rehearsing in the streets of the capital.

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Women dance and wave red flags by the side of a road in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A man rides a bicycle past women wearing traditional clothing in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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North Korean fans in national colours sing their national anthem before their team's preliminary 2018 World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying match against the Philippines at the Kim Il-sung Stadium in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A man arranges flowers beneath a portrait of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the lobby of a hotel in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP

Mobile phones are now common in the capital, with nationwide subscriber numbers topping three million, an employee with Koryolink, the cellular carrier controlled by Egypt's Orascom Telecom, told Reuters. The number has tripled since 2012. A growing number of Pyongyang residents can be seen tapping screens of smartphones, although they are not connected to the internet and can only be used to access a domestic intranet.

Until recently a city of wide empty streets, Pyongyang is experiencing traffic jams as car ownership increases. North Korea's state-directed economy is stagnant, but thriving grey-market entrepreneurship is driving increased spending on consumer goods and services like restaurants and taxis.

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Commuters make their way through an underground station in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Students use escalators to exit an underground rail station in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Passengers sit under portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in an underground train carriageDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A man reads newspapers displayed inside a subway station in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Taxis are parked outside a train station in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Two North Korean women sit in the arrivals at Pyongyang's international airportEd Jones/AFP
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People look out from the window of a tram in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
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People travel on a bus in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A cyclist rides along a street in PyongyangEd Jones/AFP
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Military personnel cross a bridge in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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People exercise on the banks of the Taedong River early in the morningDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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Military personnel and civilians watch the North Korean football team play the PhilippinesDamir Sagolj/Reuters

Although life in the capital is growing ever more comfortable, life in the provinces, and particularly in rural areas, is quite a different story. Much of North Korea remains impoverished, experts and aid officials say. An Associated Press Television News crew was allowed to join the Red Cross on a visit to a rural community in Sinyang County, which is just 150 kilometres (100 miles) from Pyongyang – a journey that takes three hours to reach by car on mostly unpaved roads. Instead of gleaming high-rise apartments and bicycle lanes, the people there are now just beginning to enjoy a far more fundamental improvement in their lives – disease-free running water.

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People work in a field just outside PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A man looks through the window of a residential block in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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North Korean military personnel paddle a small boat through morning fog on the Taedong River in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters
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A fisherman's catch is kept in a bucket of water on the banks of the Taedong River in PyongyangDamir Sagolj/Reuters

Visitors to North Korea are tightly controlled, minimising interaction with ordinary citizens, and the welcome is not always universal. As foreign journalists photographed three soldiers rowing through the early morning mist on the Taedong river, one of them was heard to shout: "Son of a dog!"