PYONGYANG (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inaugurated a new cemetery for heroes of the Korean War on Thursday, watched by thousands of veterans and their families gathered in Pyongyang for the 60th anniversary of the 1950-53 conflict.
Kim, dressed in his usual black, high-collared suit and flanked by top military officials, cut a red ribbon and laid a wreath at the cemetery's main monument -- a giant stone rifle barrel with a fixed bayonet pointing to the sky.
The ceremony, one in a series of national events that will culminate in a huge military parade in Pyongyang on Saturday, was conducted in front of the cameras of the international media, who have been invited to the North Korean capital for the anniversary celebrations.
The signing of the war armistice on July 27, 1953 is celebrated in the North as "Victory Day" and the city's streets have been lined with national flags and patriotic banners and posters with slogans praising the heroism of the soldiers who fought in what is referred to here as the "Fatherland Liberation War".
Security was extremely tight at the cemetery event.
Women wearing the traditional Korean hanbok dress fanned themselves as they lined up patiently in the humid summer heat to be screened airport-style by soldiers with security wands before being allowed into the venue.
The men either wore dark suits and ties or, in the case of the veterans, military uniforms -- some covered from neck to waist in medals.
The thousand or so graves -- each one engraved with a portrait -- belonged to veterans deemed "heroes of the republic" whose remains were brought to the hillside cemetery from burial sites around the country.
After Kim Jong-Un had completed his inspection, the invited guests descended on the terraced ranks of gravestones looking for their relatives.
"This was my eldest brother" one elderly veteran Kim Byong-Ryong told AFP as he pointed to one of the stones.
"He joined up when he was just 18 and was killed in the last year of the war. Three of my other brothers were killed as well."
As with everyone AFP talked to in the presence of official government minders, Kim said he was "extremely grateful" to Kim Jong-Un for building the cemetery and for selecting his brother to be re-buried there.
"It's a great honour," said Hwang Sung-Nam, 67, who had brought his wife to see the grave of his father who died in 1985 and was given a grave in the cemetery because of his exceptional war record.
"This will help keep his memory alive forever," Hwang said.
Also present at the ceremony were a number of Chinese veterans, easily distinguishable by the Mao badges they wore on their lapels, rather than the North Korean badges depicting the North's founder leader Kim Il-Sung - Kim Jong-Un's grandfather.
China's intervention in the Korean War was decisive in halting and then pushing back a powerful US-led offensive that had threatened to overrun the North Korean forces.
Kim only stayed for a few minutes after the ceremony before being whisked away in a convoy.
Since coming to power, Kim has maintained his father and late leader Kim Jong-Il's "military first" policy while reshuffling top military officials in an apparent effort to shore up his leadership.
While more of a public personality than his introverted father ever was, Kim remains an enigmatic figure, especially on a personal level.
He's young, but it's unclear how young, with reports ranging from 28 to 30. He has a stylish, attractive wife, but how many children he has or what gender they are is a mystery.
As far as personal tastes go, his apparent affection for amusement parks and Disney characters sits oddly with his position as supreme commander of the world's fifth-largest army with an emerging nuclear arsenal.