South Korea and North Korea on Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the cease-fire to the Korean War, a three-year conflict that left the Korean Peninsula divided, still with no formal peace treaty in sight, amid growing tension in the region.
President Yoon Suk Yeol paid respects to soldiers who fought for the US-led United Nations Command in the 1950-53 war at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, the only place in the world dedicated to fallen UN soldiers.
The visit, the first for a sitting Korean president, was followed by a commemoration ceremony at another venue in the city. There, Yoon personally thanked 62 UN veterans who were in attendance. He particularly recognized deceased Australian soldier Thomas Parkinson and US soldier Donald Reid, who attended, with awards for their contributions to erecting monuments to honor those who served in the war.
This year’s anniversary in particular represents a watershed moment, according to the Yoon administration, because Seoul-Washington ties were forged in the name of freedom. That’s a value that makes the alliance both binding and strategic, as the two allies expand cooperation in security, Yoon said.
“I wholeheartedly agree the ROK-US Alliance is becoming a linchpin of freedom, peace, and prosperity for not only the Indo-Pacific region but also the entire world,” Yoon wrote on Twitter, referring to Republic of Korea, South Korea’s official name in response to US President Joe Biden’s remarks a day earlier.
In a statement released by the White House, Biden described the alliance as having been built on shared beliefs in democracy, security and freedom.
“And they remain the source of our shared strength — keeping the alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States is the linchpin of peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and, increasingly, around the world,” the statement read.
North Korea, meanwhile, marked Thursday’s holiday by touting its ties with its biggest security partners, Russia and China. Moscow had offered instrumental political and military support without taking part in the conflict, while Beijing devoted troops. Pyongyang calls the July 27 celebrations “Victory Day” against the US-led forces.
According to North Korea’s state media on Thursday, leader Kim Jong-un met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu the previous day, marking the first high-level talks for the isolated country since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020. The North had kept its borders sealed.
Shoigu, heading the Russian delegation, handed Kim a letter from President Vladimir Putin and discussed mutual defense with the North Korean leader. Kim led a tour of the country’s weapons exhibition showcasing its latest nuclear weapons. Kim has said they are meant for self-defense, and constitute protection he will never give away nor leverage as a bargaining chip.
The same day, a Chinese delegation led by Li Hongzhong, who sits on the Communist Party of China’s 24-member Politburo, arrived in Pyongyang for the same event. The envoys from Moscow and Beijing were the first foreign delegations to visit the country recently, as it slowly eases its border controls after a three-year shutdown that has dealt a serious blow to the economy.
The celebrations in the South and North come amid growing tension on the peninsula, with Seoul and Washington reaffirming their strong alliance to rein in Pyongyang’s aggression while the North has been doubling down on missile tests.
“And North Korea is stepping up efforts to reach out to Russia and China, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they will have something concrete in the end, like holding joint military exercises,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University, referring to the regular field maneuvers between Seoul and Washington.
The Yoon administration is pressing ahead with a plan to use overwhelming firepower to deter North Korea’s aggression, and that’s “sound enough for Seoul and Washington to carry on down the road,” but the Yoon administration needs to “think about the power of dialogue as well,” Park added.
Currently, the administration is backing a unification minister nominee who prefers sanctions to dialogue.
“Dialogue is important but that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice sanctions on North Korea,” Park noted, referring to UN Security Council resolutions banning the country from testing ballistic missile technology. The North has recently conducted what it calls satellite launches, a cover some believe was designed to advance its ballistic missile technology.
Military sources in Seoul said Pyongyang could hold a military parade later in the day, a signature event meant to showcase its latest weaponry. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the parade could unveil new nuclear-capable weapons while mobilizing as many as 15,000 personnel.
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