From commemorations in Washington and South Korea to a heavily choreographed show of military force in North Korea, the world on Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War — and many American veterans reflected on their service during the nation’s “forgotten war.”
“A lot of people know it as a forgotten victory,” Salvatore Scarlato, 80, who served in Korea in 1952 and 1953, told USA Today. “We have to make sure that the people of the U.S. know that it exists.”
Gene Richards, 83, who also served in 1952 and 1953, said that he visits middle and elementary schools to educate students as part of the Korean War Veterans Association “Tell America Program.”
“We’re all in our middle 80s,” he told the newspaper. “We’ll keep the legacy going for many years.”
President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Korean War memorial on Saturday, becoming the first U.S. president to participate in a formal ceremony commemorating the armistice. As many as 5,000 people attended the event, many of them aging veterans who fought in the Korean War.
“Here today, we can say with confidence that war was no tie,” President Barack Obama said at a ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. “Korea was a victory.
“You, our veterans of the Korean War, deserve better,” he added, however. “Because here in America, no war should ever be forgotten and no veteran should ever be overlooked.”
The armistice ended three years of bloodshed between North and South Korea and its respective allies, but it has not brought peace to a still-divided peninsula.
The conflict began on June 25, 1950, after communist North Korea invaded the South. It ended on July 27, 1953, with the signing of the armistice that left the Demilitarized Zone separating the countries.
Tensions still remain high between Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington — and the North’s 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, suggested earlier this year that he would no longer abide by the agreement.
Obama said that 36,574 American troops were killed in the conflict, which he described as the first Cold War commitment by the United States to forcefully oppose communism, according to The Washington Post.
As many as 1.7 million Americans fought in Korea, and more than two million Koreans died in the conflict. Nearly 8,000 Americans remain missing.
The Washington, D.C. event was titled “Heroes Remembered.”
The president noted that some veterans wore their old uniforms — and that “they still fit.” He then asked “those who are still able to stand” to do so, prompting sustained applause, the Post reports.
In his remarks, Obama pledged not to repeat the mistake that he said was made after World War II, when a financially strained nation reduced the military too quickly.
He promised that the United States would remain the world’s strongest military power, as his administration works to end more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Obama focused his address on the graying veterans before him, his message to younger vets was unmistakable as they return from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — many having served multiple tours — to an economy still struggling to recover from recession.
“We will make it our mission to give them the respect and the care and the opportunities that they have earned,” Obama said, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki looked on.
Many Korean War veterans attending the event said that they were heartened by the president’s remarks. Most of them are now in their 80s — and they pledged to not let the war become a distant memory to the world.
Meanwhile, South Korea marked the anniversary by honoring the services and sacrifices of the U.N. forces that fought against the communist North.
About 4,000 participants — including government representatives from 27 nations, ambassadors, veterans, government officials and citizens — attended the ceremony at the War Memorial of Korea in central Seoul.
“In the last 60 years, uneasy peace has been maintained on the Korean Peninsula, with the world’s longest cease-fire,” President Park Geun-hye said in a nationally televised address reported by The Korea Herald. “Now, we have to stop confrontation and hostilities and make a new Korean Peninsula. We have to open an era of new peace and hope on the peninsula.”
Park pledged to ensure a strong deterrence against the North and to work closely with other nations to get Kim’s regime to become a responsible member of the international community.
“I will not accept any provocations that threaten the lives and properties of our people,” Park said. “We will put forth our utmost efforts to have a strong deterrence and close cooperation with the international community to make North Korea stop provocations and become a responsible member of the international community.”
As part of the U.N. Allied Forces, the United States and 20 other countries helped South Korea fight off invading troops from the North, with 16 of them sending combat troops and the others providing medical assistance units.
Tens of thousands of U.N. troops died in action.
Park reiterated her vision of building an international park inside the Demilitarized Zone to turn the heavily armed area, which is guarded by armed forces of both Koreas, into a place of “peace and trust.”
North Korea, however, still contends that it won the conflict — and the nation celebrated “Victory Day of Fatherland Liberation War” with Kim and senior military leaders watching a large military parade in Pyongyang.
The event was broadcast by the state-run Korean Central Television.
Thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, columns of tanks, and a broad array of ominous-looking missiles poised on mobile launchers were paraded through Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang.
The lavish military pageant was reminiscent of the marches held by the Soviet Union and China at the height of the Cold War — but there did not appear to be any new weapons in the parade, several military experts said.
The country’s arsenal of missiles, however, was front-and-center.
As fighter jets screamed overhead, a relaxed-looking Kim smiled and talked with China’s vice president. China fought with North Korea during the war and remains Pyongyang’s only major ally and a crucial source of economic aid. Kim did not speak during the event.
During Kim’s rule — which began in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il — he has overseen two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test that drew widespread condemnation from around the world and tightened U.N. sanctions.
His belligerent rhetoric and threats grew intense in April, leading the U.S. and China to pledge to rid Pyongyang of nuclear weapons —despite years of rivalry and discord.
North Korea is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear bombs, but many analysts don’t think it has yet mastered the technology needed to build warheads small enough to fit on long-range missiles.
The North’s parade tradition goes back to the founding of the country in 1948. Few countries, including Pyongyang’s communist models, continue to trot out their military forces in public squares with such pomp and pageantry.
But North Korea has stuck with them because its leaders believe they are a good way to show the world those things about the military they want to reveal, while at the same time sending a potent message domestically of the power of the ruling elite.
“The beauty of a parade is that weapons systems don’t actually have to work in order to be impressive,” David Stone, an expert on the Soviet and Russian militaries at Kansas State University, asserted. “A missile launcher looks good, even when the missile won’t launch.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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By Todd Beamon