1 of 8 | A soldier in Korean War-era uniform releases a dove near the Demilitarized Zone during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War on Thursday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
CHEORWON, South Korea, June 25 (UPI) -- North and South Korea commemorated the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War on Thursday, with ceremonies and speeches recalling a devastating conflict that left millions of soldiers and civilians dead and ravaged much of the peninsula.
The war, which started on June 25, 1950, has technically never ended, as hostilities ceased with a truce but not a peace treaty.
At a ceremony held in Cheorwon county, an area on the border with North Korea that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the war, hundreds of veterans and family members arrived Thursday morning to remember the past and honor those who died.
The veterans, many using canes and walkers, gathered near a memorial for the brutal Battle of White Horse for songs, a flag presentation and a dramatic re-enactment of a wartime scene.
A procession moved up to lay wreaths and burn incense for the victims of the war before doves were released from a vantage point overlooking North Korea, less than two miles away.
Veteran Choi Han-wook, 90, said he remembers the war as an all-consuming struggle to survive.
"The war is about life and death -- only those two things," he said, wearing military ribbons and a medal pinned to his suit. "You don't have thoughts about your family and hometown -- all that is lost. It was a fierce battle. War shouldn't happen, but if it does, you want to win.
Choi, who fought in the city of Inje in 1951, said he was still hoping for peace to arrive on the Korean Peninsula some seven decades later, but found the current impasse with North Korea discouraging.
"I want peace to arrive as soon as possible," he said. "South Korea wants peace but North Korea doesn't listen to us. It's not very easy."
This year's anniversary comes as the relationship between the two Koreas has deteriorated dramatically since a period of rapprochement in 2018 that many hoped would lead to denuclearization, economic cooperation and a lasting peace.
North Korea, however, demolished a symbol of that rapprochement last week when it blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong, meant to be a place where both sides could communicate and cooperate on joint projects.
Pyongyang has ramped up its vitriol toward Seoul in recent weeks, referring to the South as "the enemy" and threatening to bring troops back to border zones that had been demilitarized under a 2018 inter-Korean agreement.
A statement issued from a meeting held by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday put a halt to the military plans and seemed to lower tensions, but relations are still at a nadir, with joint economic projects on ice and thoughts of eventual unification a distant dream.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made closer ties with the North a centerpiece of his administration since taking office in 2017, struck a measured tone in his speech commemorating the anniversary on Thursday night. Moon spoke about the hope for "becoming friendly neighbors" going forward but also cautioned against any military aggression.
"We long for peace," he said. "However, if anyone threatens our people's safety and lives, we will firmly respond. Our national defense capabilities are strong enough to repel any provocation from any direction."
Moon made his remarks at Seoul Air Base during a repatriation ceremony for the remains of 147 South Korean soldiers that had been recovered in North Korea in previous years before undergoing forensic review at the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii.
The president said there was no competition left between Seoul and Pyongyang, with South Korea's GDP more than 50 times greater than that of North Korea and ideological battles over political systems a thing of the distant past.
"We do not have any intention to force our system on the North," he said. "We pursue peace and intend to live well together. We will continuously search for routes that are mutually beneficial for both Koreas through peace. Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first."
Moon added that he hoped North Korea would play its part in finally ending the Korean War.
"I hope that North Korea will also boldly embark on an endeavor to end the most sorrowful war in world history," Moon continued. "If we are going to talk about unification, we have to achieve peace first, and only after peace has continued for a long time will we be able to finally see the door to unification."
North Korean state media carried a muted message for the anniversary, with newspaper Rodong Sinmun running a single commentary that praised the "great spirit of the former generation" of war veterans and called on the younger generation to build upon it.
"When the rising generation successfully carries forward the spirit of defending the country as its soul and lifeblood, the advance of socialism is further accelerated and the security of the country and the nation firmly guaranteed," the commentary said.
The anniversary was also remembered by the United States, which sent nearly 1.8 million troops and suffered 36,574 deaths in the 1950-53 conflict.
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said in a video message posted to social media that the U.S.-South Korea alliance was "forged in the crucible of war and hardened by blood spilled together."
He called the Korean War a "struggle that culminated in the victory of democracy over communism, of freedom over oppression" and added that the alliance "serves as a foundation for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and a linchpin for the security and stability throughout the region."
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, issued a joint statement to commemorate the anniversary, saying that the alliance was "born of necessity and forged in blood" on this day in 1950.
"[B]oth leaders reaffirm their commitment to a combined defense posture that ensures everlasting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.
While the United States maintains roughly 28,500 troops on the peninsula, the two countries have been locked in a stalemate over a new cost-sharing agreement for this year. The United States is seeking an increase of some 50 percent over the nearly $900 million South Korea contributed last year.
For most in South Korea, however, the anniversary was a day to remember those who were lost and to be reminded of what they fought for all those decades ago.
"The Korean War is the war that has made us what we are today," Moon said. "The tragedy that the war brought about, the determination that overcame it, the pride in the economic growth achieved from the post-war ruins and the ideological scars left by the war . . . even after 70 years have passed, they, in their totality, reflect what we are."