North Korea, a small nation with the world's fourth largest army, staged one of its biggest military parades ever on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. NBC's Ann Curry reports.
PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Sixty years later, North Koreans have not forgotten the Korean War, as the hermit kingdom marked the anniversary Saturday with pomp and massive celebrations.
The 1950s conflict that some Americans now call the "Forgotten War" ended with the two sides signing a truce on July 27, 1953 -- a peace treaty has yet to be negotiated.
But that did not stop North Korea from celebrating the anniversary with a holiday it calls "Victory Day."
The country's 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, overlooked a massive military parade in the capital Pyongyang, as jets and helicopters roared over Kim Il Sung Square which was packed with tens of thousands of soldiers marching in step. Weapons and mid-range missiles were also on display.
Kim, dressed head-to-toe in black, did not address the crowd but Choe Ryong Hae, his military aide and chief political operative of the 1.2-million-strong army, delivered an uncharacteristically moderate speech.
"Reality shows if peace is sought, there must be preparations for war," he said. "For us with our utmost task of building an economy and improving the lives of the people, a peaceful environment is greater than ever."
While North Korea celebrated Saturday with a military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the truce that ended fighting in the Korean War, South Korea called for its neighbor to abandon nuclear weapons. NBC's Ian Williams reports.
According to a military expert in Seoul, the event appeared to display weapons that have not been on show previously in the country, including surface-to-air missiles used for anti-missile defense, Reuters reported.
Leading up to the occasion this year, the country inaugurated a national cemetery dedicated to those it calls martyrs. Among the thousands present at an event on Thursday were war veterans, many now in their 80s.
Small, spontaneous moments managed to break through that day's pageantry: a widow grieving at the ceremony for her dead husband; a wistful young soldier who said she would travel the world if she could leave North Korea; and proud parents showing off their newborn, telling NBC News' Ann Curry they hope he'd join the military someday.
Kim made an appearance, too, driving the crowds into a frenzy.
He showed up to cut a ceremonial ribbon on the graveyard but did not deliver a speech.
Kim is the grandson of Kim Il Sung, who launched the Korean War on June 25, 1950 -- although North Korea's official stance is that U.S. troops attacked first.
Most historians agree that North Korean troops charged across the border first, launching an assault at 4 a.m. The only thing North Korea agrees with is that war broke out at 4 a.m.
The fighting took more than 1.2 million lives on all sides.
The elaborate and lavish Victory Day celebrations were meant to present Kim's credentials to his people and to the world, said Ken Gause, author of numerous books and articles on North Korea's leadership.
As chief Asia photographer for the Associated Press, David Guttenfelder has had unprecedented access to communist North Korea. Here's a rare look at daily life in the secretive country.
"As he grows older and as he is able to consolidate his power, he will become more and more the supreme leader ... where he controls everything within the regime and all power flows from him," Gause said.
But 60 years on, there is still no peace on the Korean Peninsula.
"They wanna be a strong and prosperous state," Gause said. "That means a strong and independent country that operates along their own lines, in terms of guaranteeing their own security, and being able to develop their economy that they can provide for their people."
This year, Kim made the pursuit of nuclear weapons a national goal, calling it a defensive measure against the U.S. military threat.
"The new regime is increasingly isolating itself with its nuclear and missile behavior," said Victor Cha, director of Georgetown University's national resource center for Asian studies.
Cha said observers will keep an eye on Kim as he consolidates his hold on North Korea.
"It has been a year and a half since he's taken power," Cha said. "The question is whether he knows how to use that leadership for the good of the country. Right now, he appears to be following an old script that has put North Korea in the current position as a distressed economic country and a renegade nuclear weapons state."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
David Guttenfelder / AP
Female North Korean soldiers march during a mass military parade on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on Saturday.
This story was originally published on Sat Jul 27, 2013 4:22 AM EDT