SEOUL • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was shown surrounded by pistol-toting generals. In the South, masked veterans maintained social distance, as the two sides yesterday separately marked the armistice that ended Korean War hostilities.
The contrasting events marked 67 years since the 1953 ceasefire that left the peninsula divided and millions of families split by the demilitarised zone.
In the North’s capital yesterday, Mr Kim handed out commemorative pistols to dozens of generals and officers, who pledged their loyalty to him, state media reported.
The North reported its first suspected case of coronavirus infection at the weekend – after insisting for months that it had kept itself free of the disease that has swept the world – but pictures showed the generals all gathered close together for a group photo, none of them wearing masks.
Over in the South Korean capital Seoul, scores of veterans – wearing masks and in socially distanced seats – attended a tribute ceremony, themed Days Of Glory.
On screen, dramatic reconstructions of the 1950-1953 war were interspersed with interviews with foreign veterans, and messages of support from current leaders of the countries that had sent troops to support the South, among them US President Donald Trump and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.
Millions of people were killed during the three-year conflict, which began when the communist North invaded the United Sates-backed South as leader Kim Il Sung – grandfather of Mr Kim Jong Un – sought to reunify by force the peninsula that Moscow and Washington had divided at the end of World War II.
The Chinese-and Soviet-backed North fought to a standstill against the South and a US-led United Nations coalition.
The hostilities ended on July 27, 1953, with a ceasefire that has never been replaced by a peace treaty, which means the two sides are technically still at war.
The North has built up a nuclear arsenal that it says it needs to protect itself against a US invasion, and has been subjected to multiple international sanctions as a result.
Pyongyang regards the conflict as a victory, and the anniversary is a public holiday.
The North’s official news agency KCNA reported that the commemorative pistols were named after Mount Paektu, the dormant volcano on the Chinese-Korean border that is regarded as the spiritual birthplace of the Korean people. The pistol also carried Mr Kim Jong Un’s name as a token of his trust in the military commanders.
At another Southern ceremony in Panmunjom, the truce village in the demilitarised zone, General Robert Abrams, the commander of UN Command and US Forces Korea, noted the stark deterioration in conditions on the peninsula.
Seoul-Pyongyang ties have worsened steadily, and last month the North blew up a liaison office on its side of the border.
Previously, “there was an air of cautious optimism as the world witnessed a significant and palpable reduction of tensions between North and South Korea”, Gen Abrams told a handful of uniformed officers and diplomats in masks.
“Today, this cautious optimism has shifted somewhat to an air of uncertainty,” he said.
The US stations 28,500 troops in the South to defend its interests and protect it from its neighbour.