SEOUL — In a stage-managed display of military might, tanks, missiles and blocks of goose-stepping soldiers rolled through the wide streets of Pyongyang on Saturday, marking the 60th anniversary of what North Korea calls its “victory” in a war that ended in a draw.
The massive military parade, North Korea’s first in more than a year, was designed both as a showcase for its 30-year-old leader’s strength and as a warning to the foreign neighbors that Pyongyang often threatens. During the parade, the North showed off a procession of ballistic missiles mounted on mobile launchers — although experts note that some of the models may not yet be operational.
The event offered the latest reminder of North Korea’s bent for image-making at a time of increasing international isolation. The parade involved tens of thousands of participants, whose synchronized movements were honed during weeks of training at an airport in the capital, according to satellite images.
Kim Jong Un, the authoritarian nation’s third-generation leader, watched from an observation deck in Pyongyang’s central square. State television footage showed Kim, wearing a dark Mao-style suit, clapping and whispering to older officials around him, including visiting Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. But Kim did not make a speech, as he had during a parade in April 2012.
For Saturday’s event, the North granted invitations to a handful of foreign journalists, who are normally barred from the secretive nation. One photograph from the aftermath of the midday parade, shared on Twitter, showed exhausted soldiers sitting or holding onto one another to stay upright.
“Soldiers collapsed from heat exhaustion,” Ivan Watson, a CNN correspondent visiting Pyongyang, wrote on Twitter. “It was scorching hot for hours under the sun.”
Sixty years after signing the armistice, North and South Korea remain in what South Korean President Park Geun-hye calls a state of “uneasy peace.” They have also developed far different ways of remembering the war’s end.
In central Seoul on Saturday, Park delivered a somber address to several thousand people at a war memorial. She called for a cease in “hostilities” between the two Koreas and asked the North to behave more responsibly. In the past decades, the North has launched a string of attacks on the South, including a commercial airplane bombing and assassination attempts. More recently, in 2010, the North torpedoed a South Korean Navy ship and shelled a South Korean island, killing a total of 50.
“I will not accept any provocations that threaten the lives and properties of our people,” Park said, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.
The South acknowledges the three-year Korean War as a tragic draw in which 2 million people died after the North invaded on June 25, 1950. The demilitarized zone created by the armistice runs along nearly the same line as the border between the Koreas before the war.
In the North’s version of events, however, there was neither a draw nor a North Korean invasion. North Korean textbooks say the war — known as the Fatherland Liberation War — was started by “U.S. imperialists” who wanted to dominate Asia. Historians say this narrative is fabricated and contradicts the accounts provided by veterans, declassified documents and government officials from the more than 20 countries that became involved in the war.
At an event Friday at a stadium in Pyongyang, Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state, relayed the North Korean version of events to a crowd that included Kim Jong Un.
“The U.S. imperialists sustained a heavy defeat for the first time in their more than 100-year-long history of wars of aggression,” Kim said, according to the state-run news agency. “The [North], which beat back U.S. imperialism, was widely known as a country of heroes, and its army and people earned worldwide fame.”