North Korea staged an intimidating parade of military muscle and patriotic fervour 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 colour by hundreds of thousands of men and women waving flags and flowers.
Kim’s arrival at the parade ground at 10:00 am (0100 GMT) was greeted with fireworks, the release of thousands of coloured 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 programme 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.
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.
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.
South Korean honour guards stand by a wreath of the UN emblem before a commemorative ceremony of the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement and UN forces’ participation in the Korean War, at the War Memorial of Korea, in Seoul, on July 27, 2013.
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 AFP.
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.
Analysts said the parade was not just a way for Pyongyang to show off its military might but also to shore up domestic support for North Korea’s new leader.
Professor Kim Yong-Hyun at Dongguk University told AFP: “Through this parade, North Korea sought to flex its military muscle before the world and impress other countries with its nuclear and missile capabilities. At the same time, it also wanted to rally North Koreans behind the young ruler.”
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.
Once described by Mao Zedong as being close “lips and teeth”, the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has weakened significantly over the years, as China’s economic transformation has distanced it from the ideological rigidity of the dynastic Kim regime.
Increasingly frustrated by North Korea’s provocative behaviour, China signed off on the UN sanctions imposed after the February nuclear test and moved to restrict Pyongyang’s financial operations in China which the international community says are the major conduit for funding its nuclear weapons programme.
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 denuclearisation.
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.