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WASHINGTON — Six decades after the Korean War ended, President Barack Obama said Saturday that American veterans deserved a better homecoming from a war-weary nation and that their legacy is the 50 million people who live freely in a democratic South Korea.
"Here in America, no war should ever be forgotten and no veteran should be overlooked," he said in a speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, where ceremonies marked the 60th anniversary of the end of hostilities on the peninsula.
Obama said the conflict didn't unite or divide the country the same way World War II or the Vietnam War did, respectively, and that U.S. veterans came home to neither parades nor protests because "there was, it seemed, a desire to forget, to move on" by Americans tired of battle.
But they "deserved better," Obama said, adding that, on Saturday's anniversary, "perhaps the highest tribute we can offer our veterans of Korea is to do what should have been done the day you came home."
He appealed for people to pause and let these veterans "carry us back to the days of their youth and let us be awed by their shining deeds." In the audience of several thousand on a sunny and humid morning were dozens of American and Korean veterans of the war. Obama asked them to stand and be recognized.
The 1950-1953 war had North Korean and Chinese troops on one side against U.S.-led United Nations and South Korean forces. It ended on July 27, 1953, 60 years ago Saturday, with the signing of an armistice.
A formal peace treaty was never signed, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war and divided at the 38th parallel between its communist north and democratic south. More than 36,000 Americans were killed in the conflict. The U.S. still has 28,500 troops based in the south.
Yet the costs of the war continue to mount even amid relative peace.
Hostility remains between the two Koreas and between the North and the United States, which still has no formal diplomatic relations with the communist nation. The antagonism is rooted in the U.S. commitment to take a lead role in defending the South should war again break out on the peninsula.
Washington also has tried for years to wean its ally off its dependence on the U.S. military, setting and then delaying target dates for switching from U.S. to Korean control of the forces that would defend the South against a possible new attack from the North.
Another legacy is the challenge of accounting for the roughly 7,900 U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action.
Obama said the war is a reminder that a country's obligation to its fallen and their families endures long after the battle ends. He pledged that the U.S. would not rest "until we give these families a fully accounting of their loved ones."
Obama alluded to the Korean War sometimes being referred to as the "forgotten war" and noted long-standing suggestions that it was fought for naught, summed up in the phrase "die for tie." He disputed that characterization, saying "today, we can say with confidence that war was no tie. Korea was a victory."
When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom in stark contrast to the dire conditions endured by their countrymen in the North, "that's a victory. That's your legacy," he said.