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North Koreans forced to celebrate 70th anniversary of ‘victory’ in Korean War

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
July 28, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Koreans are complaining about being overworked in preparation for Thursday’s 70th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Citizens are made to drop everything to beautify their towns, practice for dancing and sports competitions, and attend educational lectures, taking them away from economic activities at a time when many in the country are having trouble making ends meet. 

Though the fighting in the war is widely considered to have ended in a stalemate, and no peace treaty to end it was ever signed, North Korea has made July 27 a national holiday called the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.”  

To prepare for Thursday’s festivities, authorities are even taking children out of school, a source from the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The authorities bother people from the early morning until late at night to prepare for the event,” he said. “From 5:30 in the morning, each neighborhood watch unit must mow lawns, clean public toilets, and paint fences … to create a holiday atmosphere.”

Workers are called away from factory floors to study propaganda, the resident said.

“[They] have classes at education halls, study films, and paint propaganda signs and wall boards,” he said. “Starting July 20, the wall board exhibitions related to [the holiday] were held in each city and county.”

Citizens are also being made to donate money for the big event, another Ryanggang resident told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“Each household is donating 3,000 won (US$0.27) to support the People’s Army,” she said. “[That’s] enough to buy a kilogram (2.2 lbs) of corn, which is enough to feed a poor family for a day.”

The second resident said students were being made to practice marching for parades and dancing for a mass dance event.

“They are complaining that they hope it rains all day that day,” she said.

According to the second resident, the schedule for Thursday is similar in each city and town across the country. Events include every citizen presenting flowers to statues of North Korea’s previous leaders, a military parade, and sports competitions with teams fielded by each factory and organization.

Additionally, there are propaganda speech contests, and mass dance events.

“For these events, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] has set July 27 as a rest day. From 10 p.m., fireworks will be held in each province,” she said.

Satellite imagery revealed that a military parade was held Thursday in the capital Pyongyang. It included missile transporter erector launcher vehicles, or TELs. 

Money matters

Because every citizen has something to do to prepare for the day, they are not free to earn money, and will experience difficulty making ends meet as a result.

In most North Korean families, men are required to work at their government-assigned jobs, but they are paid only a nominal salary. The responsibility for earning money therefore falls on their wives, many of whom operate family businesses by buying and selling goods in the marketplace.

Though these women are still called housewives colloquially, they are in fact the breadwinners of their families, and taking them away from their work is a recipe for family hardship.

Ladies in Kowon county, in the eastern province of South Hamgyong have been made to practice dancing every day from 7 to 8 p.m. in front of the local cultural center, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity for personal safety.

“Housewives who have to buy food for their families by selling in the marketplace are being mobilized …  during the day to prepare for a ball event in the evening,” she said. “People are complaining, saying, ‘We won’t get anything to eat and we are told to dance.’”

In the city of Sinuiju, on the Chinese border in the northwest, people were made to prepare for a three-hour mass dance from 7 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“There are college students involved in the outdoor mass dance and singing political event but the housewives who are members of the city’s Socialist Women’s Union of Korea get mobilized as well,” she said. “They complain, saying that ‘dancing is originally meant to be fun and exciting, but being forced to dance makes it more difficult than working.’”

Global remembrance

The international community released statements that reflected on the lessons learned from the Korean War 70 years ago.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued an order that recognized the sacrifices of soldiers who fought in the war and officially made Thursday National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day in the United States. 

“Let us honor the Korean War Veterans who fought to defend the security and stability we enjoy today,” the order said. “Let us renew our commitment to the democratic values for which they served and sacrificed.”

A statement by Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defense, called on Americans to remember the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers and its allies, and reiterated that the “ironclad alliance” with South Korea “is stronger than ever.”

Several U.S. lawmakers, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) issued a statement warning that North Korea continues “to threaten the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific with its missile and nuclear program.”

“Today’s anniversary reinforces the need for a strong U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance to bolster peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and reminds us how important it is to stand against authoritarianism,” the statement said.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who in March introduced the Peace on the Korean Peninsula Act which would officially end the Korean War with a peace treaty, said that passing that legislation would be an important first step to achieving peace on the peninsula. 

He argued that a peace treaty would not be a form of appeasement to North Korea and that U.S. troops could still be stationed in South Korea even with a peace treaty. 

U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, said in a statement that the armistice agreement has “served as a legal foundation for the preservation of peace and stability on the Peninsula,” but reminded the world that Korea remains divided. 

“Amidst rising geopolitical tensions, increased nuclear risk, and eroding respect for international norms, the threat of escalation is growing,” he said. “We need a surge in diplomacy for peace. I urge the parties to resume regular diplomatic contacts and nurture an environment conducive to dialogue.”

The seven decades since the war ended show that the status quo on the Korean peninsula is not an “adequate response to the suffering of people” in North Korea, said a joint statement by several U.N. experts, including Elizabeth Salmon, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is more isolated from the global community than ever before,” the statement said, drawing attention to current issues such as mass poverty, starvation, and overbearing government control, and continuing issues from over the past 70 years, like separated families, forced disappearances, and abductions of citizens from other countries.

“We cannot remain indifferent. Today, every actor, and particularly both parties to the Armistice Agreement and the international community, must recall the plight of the people of North Korea, the disappeared and the separated, and urgently seek ways to reengage and find solutions.”