PANMUNJOM, Korea — Elderly North Korean veterans pledged loyalty to their 20-something leader in Pyongyang during Korean War armistice commemorations Friday that were being closely watched after Kim Jong Un reshuffled the military and revealed he’s married.
Over the last two weeks, Kim has taken on the title of marshal and replaced his army chief — once a key mentor. Both moves were seen as an effort to build loyalty among the million-man armed forces and solidify his credentials as commander.
North Korea also revealed Wednesday that the stylish woman at Kim’s side in some public appearances this month is his wife. Images of her walking with Kim were choreographed to show the leader as modern, mature and down-to-earth, analysts said, and contrast sharply to his intensely private father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years before his death in December.
Kim Jong Un and his wife weren’t at Friday’s event. Hundreds of aging veterans were shown on state television in a huge auditorium as Choe Ryong Hae, the military’s top political officer, stood beneath giant portraits of Kim Jong Il and North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and urged the crowd to “follow the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un and win 100 out of 100 battles.”
North Korea later set off fireworks. At another location earlier in the day, soldiers from a tank unit named after military officer Ryu Kyong Su, famous in North Korea for leading troops during the war, also staged firing drills.
Ri Kyong Won, a 62-year-old general-grade officer, told the Associated Press that his troops will not tolerate the United States or South Korea doing anything to denigrate the North Korean leadership.
The commemorations are meant to kindle patriotism and loyalty in North Koreans, and especially the young, by showcasing veterans who fought for their country, said Kim Yeon-su of Korea National Defense University in Seoul.
Separately, North Korea is filling vacancies left by the sudden dismissal of former army chief Ri Yong Ho. Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency introduced the new military chief, Hyon Yong Chol, as Ri’s successor as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party in a dispatch Friday. Hyon was promoted to vice marshal and chief of general staff after Ri was dismissed earlier this month. Kim Jong Un chairs the commission.
While South Korea and the U.S.-led U.N. forces that fought in the Korean War call Friday the 59th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 conflict, North Korea calls it a celebration of “victory in the Fatherland Liberation War” and veterans streamed into the capital.
“Airports, railway stations and parking lots were crowded with delegates to the celebrations, their comrades-in-arms, families and relatives, people from all walks of life and youth and students,” KCNA said.
U.S. and South Korean officials marked the armistice at the border village of Panmunjom. Because no peace treaty was signed, the Korean Peninsula remains technically in a state of war.
Ahead of the anniversary, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its long-standing demand that the United States sign a peace treaty with North Korea to replace the armistice.
Washington says normal ties will only come after North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons and takes other steps. International nuclear disarmament talks have been stalled since late 2008, and animosity between the Koreas is high.