By Andres Sanchez Braun
Cheorwon, South Korea, Jun 25 (efe-epa).- The 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War was commemorated here Thursday amid a strained atmosphere marked by the recent worsening of relations between the two Koreas, as well as Kim Jong-un’s surprising order to reduce cross-border tensions earlier this week.
No grand events were held to mark the anniversary either in Seoul – where President Moon Jae-in held a few moments of silence – or Pyongyang, amid a year in which a growing rift devolved into open hostility and threats on the part of the North in recent weeks.
After the failed 2019 disarmament summit between North Korea and the United States in Hanoi, communication across the inter-Korean border had weakened gradually prior to the start of this month, when Pyongyang upped the ante after South Korean activists sent balloons across the border carrying anti-Kim propaganda.
The furious North Korean leader responded by blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office situated in the North’s territory and announcing that he would redeploy troops to the border, thereby canceling a major bilateral military pact signed during a honeymoon phase two years ago.
Adding more uncertainty to the situation, the North announced on Wednesday that Kim had decided to suspend those redeployment plans, although there was little rejoicing over that decision in Seoul, where a spokesperson of the Unification Ministry said only that it was a “positive” gesture.
The official North Korean daily Rodong Sinmun on Thursday marked the anniversary of the war by reiterating the importance of patriotism and defending the regime and its ideology.
In Cheorwon, a border county that is now part of South Korean territory and which witnessed some of fiercest battles of the war, a ceremony was held to honor veterans who had fought side-by-side with a US-led United Nations contingent against the China- and Soviet Union-backed troops of Kim Il-sung – the grandfather of the current North Korean leader.
Incense was lit to pay homage to the fallen, former soldiers were honored and pigeons were released in the North’s direction to symbolize the quest for a peace which has yet to officially.
The conflict concluded with an armistice that ended the hostilities but was never replaced with a formal peace treaty.
“I desire peace as soon as possible,” 90-year-old veteran Choi Han-wook, who fought on the eastern front in Inje, told EFE, adding that he did not know how many more anniversaries he would be able to celebrate.
Choi joined the armed struggle after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel – a boundary established by Washington and Moscow in 1945 when the peninsula was freed from Japanese occupation – and kicked off a three-year conflict (the first of the Cold War) that lasted until 1953 and killed millions of people.
“I’m sad and confused by the current situation. The liaison office was not constructed by the North alone but by both the Koreas and they blew it up on their own,” Choi said after the ceremony, held at the memorial tower in Baekma Goji (white horse hill), the scene of one of the deadliest battles of the war.
In October 1952, the small hill changed hands at least 14 times during 10 days of fierce fighting.
Aerial bombings and approximately 270,000 rounds of artillery fire left the mountain completely bare and gave it the appearance of a threadbare white horse (as the name suggests).
Apart from Baekma Goji, many other landmarks in the region bear witness to the horrors of the partition and the war, such as the former regional office of the Workers’ Party of Korea, now the only political party in the North.
The building, which was reduced to ruin due to the war and still carries marks of the gunfire, ended up in South Korean territory when the border was shifted two kilometers northward as a result of post-conflict negotiations.
The edifice has been declared protected cultural heritage, and South Korean authorities spend money on repairing it time and again to prevent it from collapsing completely, an effort that stands in contrast to Pyongyang’s recent demolition of a building on which Seoul had spent around $9.7 million. EFE-EPA