PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea marked the 60th anniversary of the truce that ended the Korean War with a lavish and painstakingly choreographed military parade through Pyongyang’s main square, a solemn gathering led by leader Kim Jong Un at a newly opened war museum that features prominently the USS Pueblo spy ship captured in 1968 and a fireworks display that filled the night sky and drew huge crowds who watched from along the Pothong river.
This year’s parade, which also included floats and thousands of civilians waving colorful fake flowers, appeared to offer more flash and pageant than new revelations of the secretive North’s military capabilities, though one unit prominently carried kits marked with the bright yellow nuclear symbol, a reminder of the North’s claims that it is preparing itself against a nuclear attack by the United States and is developing a nuclear arsenal of its own.
The extravagant assembly of weapons and goose-stepping troops on Saturday was reminiscent of the marches held by the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War. It is one of the few chances the world gets to see North Korea’s military up close. Although Pyongyang frequently uses the occasion to reveal new, though not always operational, hardware, there didn’t appear to be any major new weapons in Saturday’s parade.
Overlooking a sea of spectators mobilized in Kim Il Sung Square to cheer and wave flags, leader Kim Jong Un saluted his troops from a review stand. He was flanked by senior military officials, the chests of their olive green and white uniforms laden with medals. As fighter jets screamed overhead, a relaxed looking Kim smiled and talked with China’s vice president. China fought with North Korea during the war and is Pyongyang’s only major ally and a crucial source of economic aid. Kim did not make a speech.
Saturday’s parade marked a holiday the North Koreans call “Victory Day in the Fatherland Liberation War,” although the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and the Korean Peninsula remains technically at war.
In Washington, President Barack Obama marked the day with a speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, saying the anniversary marks the end of the war and the beginning of a long and prosperous peace.
“Here today, we can say with confidence, that war was no tie, Korea was a victory,” with 50 million South Koreans living in freedom and “a vibrant democracy” in stark contrast to dire conditions in the North, Obama said.
He said the U.S.-South Korea partnership remains “a bedrock of stability” throughout the Pacific region, and gave credit to the U.S. service members who fought all those years ago and to the men and women currently stationed there.
Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said North Korea intended to use the anniversary to highlight Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
‘ ‘It was a political performance meant to show off that Kim Jong Un remains powerful and strong,” said Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
He said Kim standing side by side China’s vice president was a reminder of the Cold War when North Korea and China stood against South Korea and the U.S., he said. It also indicated that North Korea wants to demonstrate its ties with China are on a path to recovery, which could send a message to the U.S.
“The fact that China’s vice president was standing next to Kim Jong Un could have a symbolic meaning. That North Korea joining hands with China against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. reminds of the Cold War era. North Korea probably wanted to show off that its relationship with China is improving,” Chang said. “It is like telling the U.S. that even if you don’t want to talk to us, you’ll end up having dialogue with us” as North Korea gets close with China.
Kim’s rule, which began in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, has been marked by high tensions with Washington and Seoul. He has overseen two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test that drew widespread condemnation and tightened U.N. sanctions.
North and South Korea have turned to tentative diplomacy in recent weeks, but March and April saw North Korean threats of nuclear war against Washington and Seoul in response to annual South Korean-U.S. military drills and U.N. condemnation of Pyongyang’s February nuclear test, the country’s third. Long-stalled North Korean nuclear disarmament talks show no sign of resuming.
Last year’s parade in Pyongyang, held to commemorate the April celebrations of the 100th birthday of the late national founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, created a buzz among military watchers when the North rolled out a mysterious long-range missile known abroad as the KN-08. Most outside observers now believe the missiles were mock-ups, but they were carried on mobile launchers that appeared to have been obtained from China, possibly against U.N. arms trade sanctions.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, President Park Geun-hye vowed not to tolerate provocations from North Korea — Seoul says North Korean attacks in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans — but she also said Seoul would work on building trust with the North. “I urge North Korea to give up the development of nuclear weapons if the country is to start on a path toward true change and progress,” Park said in a speech.
North Korea is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear bombs, but many analysts don’t think it has yet mastered the technology needed to build warheads small enough to fit on long-range missiles.
The North’s parade tradition goes back to the founding of the country in 1948. Few countries — including North Korea’s communist models — continue to trot out their military forces in public squares with such pomp and pageantry. But Pyongyang has stuck with them because its leaders believe they are a good way to show the world those things about the military they want to reveal, while at the same time sending a potent message domestically of the power of the ruling elite.
“The beauty of a parade is that weapons systems don’t actually have to work in order to be impressive — a missile launcher looks good even when the missile won’t launch,” said David Stone, an expert on the Soviet and Russian militaries at Kansas State University.
That can be risky, however.
Almost as soon as last year’s parade was over, military experts around the world said they thought the stars of the show — the long-range KN-08 missiles — were mock-ups of a design that is still being perfected and probably couldn’t actually fly, despite North Korea’s claims that it has the capability to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped ICBMs.