SEOUL — The two Koreas on Saturday commemorated the 60th anniversary of their armistice, but in vastly different ways.
For the first time in 20 years, North Korea staged a mass military parade to mark what it calls Victory Day, memorializing the date in 1953 when the Korean War came to an uneasy standstill. More than 10,000 soldiers marched in their usual punctilious manner, with tens of thousands of Pyongyang residents cheering in apparent celebration.
In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye delivered a speech at Yongsan War Memorial in Seoul, proposing to turn the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas into a peace park, while urging North Korea to become a “responsible member of the international community.”
“In the last 60 years, uneasy peace has been maintained on the Korean peninsula, with the world’s longest cease-fire,” Park said. “Now, we have to stop confrontation and hostilities and make a new Korean peninsula. We have to open an era of new peace and hope on the peninsula.”
That has so far seemed a distant dream. Last week, efforts to reopen the Kaesong industrial zone, a joint project between the two Koreas that was shut down by the North in April, ended in stalemate, with Pyongyang threatening to turn the complex into a military base. It was the latest in a series of setbacks in the quest for a peaceful end to an ever-tense standoff.
The Korean armistice agreement, signed July 27, 1953, brought an end to hostilities in the 3-year-old Korean War. The text of the agreement said it would bring about “a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” That has never happened, and the border dividing the two Koreas remains one of the world’s most dangerous.
North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, dressed in a black Mao suit, looked over the vast military parade Saturday, and smiled and waved to the crowd. The 30-year-old did not deliver a speech, but his right-hand military man, Choe Ryong Hae, spoke about the government’s strength, which he attributed to its military-first strategy.
“As we have set establishing the economy and improving the livelihood of the people as the primary goal, peace is most significant to us,” Choe said. “If we want peace, we need to be prepared for war.”
Hundreds of foreign delegates and journalists were invited to observe the event. Among the more notable was China’s vice president, Li Yuanchao, who was seen standing next to Kim and often exchanging remarks.
The parade showcased North Korea’s Scud missiles and about 300 other kinds of military hardware, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Though there was no new type of weaponry, experts noted the display of about 30 MD 500 helicopters, primarily used by the South Korean army.
The grandeur of Saturday’s parade aside, the Stalinist government in North Korea is more isolated than ever. The United Nations this year set additional sanctions on Kim’s government as punishment for a recent long-range missile launch and nuclear test. Last month, Washington added more restrictions by blacklisting North Korean businesses and individuals in its latest efforts to cut off financing for Pyongyang’s development of weapons of mass destruction.
China’s Li has urged Kim to scrap his nuclear weapons program and return to six-party talks, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Kim reportedly gave a positive reply, but the chances of the talks resuming appear slim, experts said.
“In order for the six-party talks to resume, Pyongyang will have to show a sincere action to desert their nuclear ambitions,” said Park Syung Je, a North Korea analyst with the Seoul-based Asia Strategy Institute. “But for now, it is very unlikely they will give up on nuclear state status.”
The armistice day was an ordinary Saturday for most South Koreans; there were no mass gatherings, although the anniversary is regarded solemnly. This year, the South proclaimed that it would honor the day as “U.N. Forces Participation Day” in tribute to the United Nations troops, mostly American, who fought in the Korean War.
Choi is a special correspondent