Chinese, North Korean and two U.S. veterans on Thursday joined leader Kim Jong Un at the start of official commemorations in Pyongyang for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
In his first public appearance for the anniversary events, Mr. Kim laid a floral arrangement at a monument to war veterans that is the centrepiece of a sprawling new national military cemetery in Pyongyang’s outskirts. Mr. Kim took power after his death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011 and has since overseen two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test that have drawn international condemnation and tightened U.N. sanctions.
Dozens of elderly Chinese soldiers who fought for North Korea joined Thursday’s commemoration. Also taking part were two U.S. veterans who fought against Chinese soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.
“I would like to meet some (North) Korean veterans to tell them how sorry I am for their fallen comrades, and for my fallen comrades”, said retired Pvt. First Class Dick Bonelli of the U.S. Marines.
Mr. Bonelli and U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner are in North Korea to revisit Jangjin County, better known to Americans as the Chosin Reservoir.
“It’s a very emotional occasion to be here with so many veterans not only the veterans but also the people of the nation who turned out to show their support to all of veterans. And as an American veteran, I am delighted to see that our former foe and we share some of the same feelings about this”, Mr. Hudner said.
The Korean War, pitting North Korean and Chinese troops against U.S.-led United Nations and South Korean forces, ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty was never signed, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war and divided at the 38th parallel.
That has not stopped the North Koreans from calling July 27 “Victory Day”. Brightly coloured banners with the words ‘Victory’ and ‘War Victory’ fluttered from buildings across the capital city. The North Korean government is expected to use the anniversary to rally support for Kim and to draw attention to the division of the Korean Peninsula.
In February, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, raising tensions in the region amid threats of war between the two Koreas that led to the shutting down of a jointly-run factory park in a North Korean border town.
Officials from the rivals have had a series of so far unsuccessful meetings this month to reopen the park and are set to meet again on Thursday, their sixth discussion this month.
North Korea has been gearing up for months for the milestone war anniversary. Soldiers were assigned to carry out an extensive renovation of the Korean War museum. Students rehearsed every afternoon for a new war-themed rendition of the ‘Arirang’ mass games song-and-dance performance, which opened on Tuesday. And citizens got down on their hands and knees in the lead-up to help lay sod and plant grass as part of a massive greenification of Pyongyang.
Scores of foreign visitors began arriving in Pyongyang this week, including a planeload of journalists from the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and elsewhere.
One North Korean, Pak Chun Son, sobbed as she paid her respects at the gravestone of her father, Pak Hyon Jong, who died in the war when she was 5.
“My father will be honoured on this hill forever”, said her brother, Pak Yun Yong, who was 8 when his father died. He was dressed in a military uniform weighed down by medals. Tears sprang to his eyes. “We want to raise our children to be patriots like their grandfather was.”
Commemorations also are taking place in South Korea and the United States.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye attended a memorial event on Tuesday in the southern city of Busan to pay her respects to the troops who defended South Korea during the war. On Thursday, a group from South Korea’s Naval Academy set sail on a six-month expedition to 14 countries as part of their Korean War remembrance.
U.S. President Barack Obama is to give a speech Saturday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.