WASHINGTON - President Obama today honored the 60th anniversary of the peace armistice that brought an end to the Korean War, which claimed more than 2.5 million lives over three years.
The armistice put an end to fighting in the war, but left a military stalemate that goes on today, with North and South Korea separated by a Demilitarized Zone left in the wake of that conflict.
The president laid a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, paying tribute to those who served in the war, which the U.S. fought from 1950 to 1953. Before an estimated 5,000 people, Obama spoke about the "forgotten war," the soldiers who fought in it - many of them now in their 80s - and the nation's eagerness to forget the war and move on.
"On this 60th anniversary, perhaps the highest tribute we can offer our veterans of Korea is to do what should have been done the day you come home. In our hurried lives, let us pause. Let us listen. Let these veterans carry us back to the days of their youth and let us be awed by their shining deeds," Obama said. "Listen closely and hear the story of a generation, veterans of World War II recalled to duty, husbands kissing their wives goodbye yet again, young men - some just boys, 18, 19, 20 years old - leaving behind everyone they loved to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met."
The memorial itself is part of the country's attempt to right a wrong, Obama said. President George H.W. Bush conduced the memorial's groundbreaking in 1992, nearly 40 years after the war ended.
The president also noted that thousands of American POWs, and soldiers missing in action in Korea, still have not been found.
"To this day, 7,910 Americans are still missing from the Korean War, and we will not stop working until we give these families a full accounting of their loved ones," the president said.
Obama called Korea a lesson in military preparedness, pointing out that after a quick draw-down from World War II, U.S. troops were left under-equipped, firing rockets that bounced off North Korean tanks.
As the U.S. begins to draw down in Afghanistan, soon after leaving Iraq, Obama pledged the U.S. will maintain the strongest military in the world. And the president disputed the notion that the war had ended in a tie, with North and South Korea divided by the DMZ along the 38th parallel.
"Here, today, we can say with confidence, that war was no tie. Korea was a victory," the president said to applause. "When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom, a vibrant democracy, one of the world's most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North, that is a victory and that is your legacy."
The president was joined by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who laid their own wreaths. Also in attendance were Special Envoy from the Republic of Korea Kim Jung Hun.
"The veterans we honor today were the young we sent to the mud of Korea with very little notice. The lessons are many, as are the arguments about how they should have been better prepared and equipped to fight that expeditionary mission," Shinseki said. "What is unarguable, however, is the heroism with which these veterans performed their missions."