PYONGYANG, North Korea: North Korea staged an intimidating parade of military muscle and patriotic fervor Saturday, aimed at rallying support around leader Kim Jong-Un on the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War.
For two hours, wave after wave of goose-stepping soldiers, followed by batteries of tanks and longer-range missiles on giant mobile launchers, marched through Kim Il-Sung square in a highly orchestrated display of national solidarity and defiance.
Kim Jong-Un, flanked by top military officials and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, took the salute from the review podium overlooking Pyongyang’s giant Kim Il-Sung square, which was turned into a sea of color by hundreds of thousands of men and women waving flags and red, pink, white and blue flowers.
Kim’s arrival at the parade ground at 10:00 am (0100 GMT) was greeted with fireworks, the release of thousands of colored balloons and hysterical cheers from the crowds.
As the soldiers marched and the tanks rolled past, fighter jets screeched overhead and pairs of helicopters made rushing, low-altitude passes over the parade.
Missiles on display included mid-range Musudans as well as what appeared to be a long-range KN-08—a little known model first unveiled at the last major parade in Pyongyang in April last year.
Analysts concluded after the April event that the missile was actually a mock-up.
North Korea’s missile program is shrouded in secrecy, but few observers believe it has the inter-continental ballistic capacity its leadership has sometimes hinted at.
The ceasefire in the 1950-53 Korean War is celebrated in North Korea as “Victory Day” over US and UN-led forces, even though the conflict ended in a territorial stalemate.
The massive parade capped a week of celebratory events that has repeatedly stressed the need for young North Koreans to emulate the sacrifice of the war veterans.
In the keynote speech at the parade, Kim’s top military aide Choe Ryong-Hae, said North Korea had defeated the US through “superiority of spirit, which the new generation should embody.
For all the military muscle being flexed in the parade ground, Choe stressed the need for a “peaceful environment” on the Korean peninsula.
“This is crucial to the task of building a strong economy and improving people’s livelihoods,” he said.
Despite paying some lip service to economic reform, Kim Jong-Un has shown no real sign of deviating from his late father Kim Jong-Il’s “military first” policy that prioritized military power over economic welfare.
The parade followed a recent surge in military tensions on the peninsula triggered by the North’s third nuclear test in February.
North Korea’s official version of the Korean War attributes “victory” to the strategic genius of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather and the nation’s founder Kim Il-Sung.
At one point in the parade, a giant photo portrait of a youthful Kim Il-Sung was carried past the podium—with the face bearing such a strong resemblance to Kim Jong-Un that some foreign observers suggested it had been digitally manipulated.
Support for the current leader was highlighted throughout with a small fleet of helicopters trailing banners that collectively read “Protect Kim Jong-Un With Our Lives.”
“All of us are old, but we are ready to sacrifice our lives again,” retired colonel Kim Tae-Ho, one of many war veterans invited to watch the parade told Agence France-Presse.
Kim Jong-Un, wearing his signature dark Mao suit, had been expected to use the anniversary to make a televised address.
But Choe’s was the only speech, and Kim’s participation was restricted to waving from the podium.
The presence of the Chinese vice president—the most senior Beijing official to visit Pyongyang since Kim came to power—was significant given recent strained ties between the North and its sole major ally.
China’s relationship with North Korea—famously described by Mao Zedong as being as close as “lips and teeth”—was forged in the Korean war, which China entered to prevent the North’s total defeat.
But the relationship has weakened significantly over the years, as China’s economic transformation has distanced it from the ideological rigidity of the dynastic Kim regime across the border.
Increasingly frustrated by North Korea’s provocative behavior, China signed off on the UN sanctions imposed after the February nuclear test.
In line with the sanctions, Beijing has moved to restrict Pyongyang’s financial operations in China which the international community says are the major conduit for funding its nuclear weapons program.
In a commentary piece on Saturday, China’s official Xinhua news agency called on all sides to forge a lasting peace on the peninsula.
“The key is in the hands of the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States, whose mutual antagonism is the root cause of instability on and around the Korean Peninsula,” it said.
During talks on Wednesday, Xinhua said Li told Kim that Beijing would push for a resumption of talks on denuclearization.
S. Korea urges North to embrace peace
In South Korea, meanwhile, the armistice anniversary was marked in a far more muted fashion.
In Seoul, President Park Geun-Hye urged the North to give up its nuclear ambitions and embrace change and peace.
“If the North makes the right choice, we will expand exchanges and cooperation and actively open up the road for prosperity of the North and the South,” she said.