PYONGYANG: In mist-covered hills, North Korean soldiers, sailors and civilians gathered Friday at a heroes’ cemetery to commemorate their brothers in arms on the anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Hostilities between the US-led United Nations forces and the North Koreans and their Chinese allies ceased 65 years ago with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically still in a state of conflict.
The two sides had fought each other to a standstill after the North invaded the South, Seoul had changed hands four times, millions were dead and Korea was a divided, war-ravaged ruin but the North’s self-proclaimed victory has long constituted a key plank of the Kim dynasty’s claim to legitimacy.
Platoon by platoon, units gathered at the graveyard on the outskirts of Pyongyang dominated by a towering sculpture of a rifle muzzle and bayonet, adorned with the medal of a Hero of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
They laid flowers before an oversized granite coffin, draped in a metal flag and topped with a submachine gun and cap.
An announcer intoned: “Let us bow before the martyrs who took part in the Great Fatherland Liberation War” — Pyongyang’s name for the conflict — before the troops doffed caps and bowed.
According to Pyongyang’s histories, the first of the cemetery’s occupants to die, Jang Thae Hwa, 22, blocked a pillbox opening with his chest one day after the war began in 1950 so that his unit could advance.
And they say Ri Hyon Jun, 20, the last soldier killed in the conflict to be laid to rest at the site, was a ground gunner who earned the Hero of the DPRK title for shooting down four enemy aircraft, only to die in a later engagement just five days before the fighting ended.
Ceremonies complete, the soldiers strolled between the rows of graves, arranged chronologically in order of date of death.
At the same time on the other side of the country, remains believed to be those of American servicemen killed in the war were being loaded onto a US aircraft for transportation to the South, in the first stage of their final journey home.