North Korea is marking its 60th anniversary as a nation amid growing speculation over the health of its leader who has not been seen for several weeks, according to Al Jazeera.

The centrepiece of Tuesday`s celebrations is expected to be a massive military parade, due to take place later on Tuesday and featuring tens of thousands of soldiers and weapons systems.

South Korea`s Yonhap news agency has said the event in Pyongyang will be the largest to date, in a nation renowned for its military pageantry.

Previous anniversaries have been marked by thousands of troops and military hardware parading through Kim Il-sung square in the centre of the North Korean capital.

The square is dedicated to the nation`s "eternal president" and father of current ruler Kim Jong-il.

But in the run-up to Tuesday`s parade there have been growing questions over whether the man known as the "Dear Leader" will attend.

Kim Jong-il has not been seen in public for nearly a month, and rumours of ill health are rife with unconfirmed reports in South Korea saying he may have collapsed last month.

According to South Korean diplomats a team of Chinese doctors was reported to have visited North Korea immediately afterwards and are said to be still in the country.

The health of the 66-year-old leader is a closely guarded secret, but rumours have persisted that he suffers from diabetes and heart problems.

He usually attends major military parades and his absence from ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the North Korean state would certainly fuel speculation over his well-being.

According to North Korean media, Kim`s last public appearance was about a month ago.

Nuclear tensions

Tuesday`s celebrations come amid renewed international tensions over North Korea`s nuclear programme, following reports that it has taken steps to restart its main plutonium-producing reactor.

North Korea began taking apart its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant in November under the terms of a five nation disarmament-for-aid deal brokered by China.

The North, which tested a nuclear device about two years ago, had completed most of the required disablement steps, but stopped the process in August in protest at what it said was Washington`s failure to drop it from a US terrorism blacklist.

Washington has said the North must first agree on a system to verify disclosures about its nuclear programmes.

Al Jazeera