Seoul, South Korea Fifty years to the day after the start of the Korean War, South Korea on Sunday honored soldiers from 21 nations who spared this country from communist rule, even as its leader reached out to its northern neighbors who attacked it in the first place.
"This tragic June that left an indelible mark on our country is slowly changing into a June of hope," President Kim Dae-jung told 10,000 Korean and American veterans at a commemoration ceremony in downtown Seoul. The event was a toned-down version of the more militaristic display planned before President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jung-il met at their historic summit earlier this month in Pyonyang.
Kim's 30-minute speech carried a definitely bifurcated message, one that honored the veterans' sacrifices of the past but also held out hope that they'd never be required to fight such a battle again. Two-thirds of his remarks were devoted to the summit's success and the plans to quickly bring the two countries closer.
"My heartfelt condolences go out to all who were hurt, physically and spiritually in the war," Kim told the crowd assembled outside the massive War Memorial. But "history requires us to promote peace, reconciliation and cooperation within the whole Korean nation. There should not be another war within the Korean people, but instead we should pursue coexistence through harmony."
Despite some grumbling about the planned veterans' parade being canceled, the several hundred American vets who returned this week to be honored, and hopefully find closure to bitter memories of this brutal war, were appreciative of the honor bestowed upon them.
"If canceling the parade will help in any way with the eventual reunification of these two countries, then I'm glad," said George Ligos, 69, from Fair Lawn, N.J. Attached to the 1st Marines Division, Ligos had fought in heavy combat here in 1952. Coming back for the first time, seeing the marching bands and hearing the 21-gun salute to the vets was a highlight of his life.
"This is truly exhilarating," said Ligos, as he raced about with his camcorder, taping the Korean flag bearers and color guards entering the huge square in front of the memorial. "I've never seen anything like this. Knowing now that they really care about the sacrifices we made is a fantastic feeling. Korea has made me feel like a king today."
Of the 10,500 people invited to the event, 9,000 were South Koreans, mostly veterans and their spouses. In waves, they filed into their seating areas, many proudly displaying numerous war medals, and waved little Korean flags as soldiers from each of the allied nations who fought beside South Korean here were honored.
"I'm thankful to God for my good health and for the Americans who helped us save our country from the communists," said Jim Ku, a 71-year-old South Korean vet who divides his time between Seoul and Sydney, where he runs a thriving telecom business. Ku served alongside the Americans in some the war's bloodiest battles as part of his army's signal corps, running heavy rolls of radio wire up and down hills under enemy fire.
Many of the American vets who've returned here for the first time in 50 years couldn't get over how much the country had changed since the last time they laid eyes on it. Seoul back then was a wreck after having been taken twice by the North Koreans, with many buildings burned and much of the city deserted by its terrified residents. Today, this ultra-modern city of 11 million with a booming and global economy is an awesome sight to behold.
"I didn't think we'd left enough people here to create the city they've built from scratch," said a wide-eyed vet named Elbert Kendrick. After the ceremony, with his wife, Bonita, at his side, the Texan from Austin slowly walked up and down a long lobby inside the War Memorial where the names of every soldier who died in the Korean War is etched in huge plaques. The American dead are broken down by their home state.
"I was with the Army infantry and we led the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter," said Kendrick. "Coming back here today made all the suffering from that time seem worthwhile. I'd been disillusioned about returning here, especially after most Americans have long since forgotten all about this war. But I'm so impressed with the people I've found here and the welcome the government has given us."
Kendrick told a story of being in a crowded market earlier this week in Seoul when a stranger suddenly came up to him out of the blue and stuck out his arm. "He shook my hand and said simply 'Welcome to Korea,' " said Kendrick, his voice cracking with emotion. "Just seeing that made me feel good about what we did over here."
The three-year conflict left about five million people dead, wounded or missing, more than half of them civilians. South Korea lost 138,000 soldiers and police in the war, with civilian deaths amounting to almost 373,000. Some 33,000 American troops were killed in the war, as were some 3,200 soldiers from other allied nations.
Even Army Gen. Thomas Schwartz, commander of the 37,000 American troops still stationed in South Korea, was visibly moved by Sunday's ceremony. But it was especially those moments when veterans would walk up to each other, shake hands and even hug one another that Schwartz could not get over.
"These are people who sacrificed so much and there's a special bond between them that time can't erase," said the general. "They'll take it with them to their graves. It's the spirit of war buddies."
Schwartz pointed out that it is the trip American vets make up to the DMZ that really brings to life the "fruits of what they were fighting for here. It's a long trip for them to come all the way over here from the States, but most do find closure because they can see with their own eyes the beauty of this country and the incredible society that exists here.
"They look over the border into North Korea," said the general "and there are no trees, no buildings, no life. And the vets realize that safeguarding freedom for the south was worth the price they paid."