Veterans and dignitaries gathered at South Korea's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) border with the North yesterday to remember those who did not live to see the armistice that ended Korean War fighting 50 years ago.
The ceremony combined remembrance with reminders of what New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark called the "very critical challenge" posed by communist North Korea's nuclear weapons aims.
At 10am on July 27, 1953, North Korea and the UN force signed an Armistice Agreement. It took effect 12 hours later and remains in force, meaning the Koreas are technically at war -- and the heavily fortified DMZ is a vivid symbol of that.
"We pray that true peace may come to this Korean peninsula, and that this divided country may restore its 5,000 years of history and become one again," retired missionary Horace Underwood, 85, told the 1,500 veterans and 200 dignitaries at Panmunjom truce village at the heart of the DMZ.
Underwood interpreted at the truce talks.
Army General Leon LaPorte, commander of the 37,000 US troops in South Korea, described the event in an upbeat rather than solemn speech as a "grand celebration" of the UN forces saving Chinese-backed North Korea from engulfing the South.
"To some the armistice represents an anti-climactic finish to a complex conflict," he told the crowd in a tent that shielded them from rain. "[But] the armistice represents nothing short of victory, nothing short of an historic international stand against communist aggression."
North Korea, which says it won the war, has described the ceremony as a disgusting farce. A lone North Korean guard stood stone-faced on the far side of the dividing line.
"This weekend we remember ... the terrible human cost," said Clark, paying tribute to more than 84,000 soldiers who died serving under the UN flag.
"We also remember the losses incurred by the other side," Clark said of communist deaths that were greater than that of the allies in a war that also killed millions of Korean civilians.
"We want to see North Korea emerge from isolation," she said. "We hope North Korea will seize the opportunity to do that now."
North Korea is edging toward talks with the US and other powers in a crisis that erupted last October when Washington said Pyongyang had said it had a covert atomic plan.
At the ceremony, UN forces unveiled a stone arrow curving toward the off-limits hut where US Lieutenant General William Harrison and North Korean General Nam Il signed the truce.
Over the weekend, veterans from the 16 nations of the UN force visited other sites and graves of those killed in the 1950 to 1953 conflict, often called the "Forgotten War."
In a message to the US, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said the conflict was by no means forgotten.
"We resolutely repelled the attempt to communize the Korean peninsula," he said.
Retired General Paek Sun-yop, who represented South Korea at the 1953 signing, condemned human rights abuses under North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, whose father Kim Il-sung launched the war to try to reunify the peninsula under communist rule.
Veterans, many sporting medals and regimental hats, stared wistfully across the demarcation line and chatted to comrades.
New Zealand veteran Tamai Te Kani, 76, said he was amazed at the economic progress in South Korea evident in the bustling capital city of Seoul, just 55km from the border.