CHEORWON: Korean War veterans salute before a monument during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War at the Baengmagoji War Memorial in Cheorwon, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating north and south Korea. – AFP

SEOUL: South Korea and the United States yesterday reaffirmed their commitment to defending "the hard-fought peace" on the divided peninsula as the allies marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. Communist North Korea invaded the US-backed South on June 25, 1950, triggering a three-year war that killed millions. The fighting ended with an armistice that was never replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by the Demilitarized Zone and the two Koreas still technically at war.

"On this day in 1950, the US-ROK military alliance was born of necessity and forged in blood," US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo said in a joint statement. The two paid tribute to the "sacrifice, bravery, and legacy of those who laid down their lives in defence of a free, democratic, and prosperous" South, the statement read. Seoul's defence ministry puts the war's military fatalities at 520,000 North Koreans, 137,000 Southern troops and 37,000 Americans.

The North has a different history of the conflict, which it knows as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, and insists that it was attacked first, before it counter-assaulted. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried more than 10 stories on the war yesterday, including an editorial asserting that a US invasion had turned "the entire country into ashes". "A ceasefire is not peace," it said. "The enemy is aiming for the moment that we forget about June 25 and lower our guard."

The nuclear-armed North, which is subject to multiple international sanctions over its banned weapons programmes, says it needs its arsenal to deter a US invasion. Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been deadlocked for months, leaving inter-Korean relations in a deep freeze despite a rapid rapprochement in 2018 that brought three summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in. The Rodong Sinmun carried a picture of a war heroes' cemetery on the outskirts of Pyongyang, with the caption reading: "The great achievements of the victory generation will not be forgotten."

White doves
At the site of one of the key battlefields in Cheorwon county, near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, a  handful of surviving South Korean war veterans marked the anniversary. "It is our misfortune that the South and North had to live for nearly 70 years in confrontation because of the war," a veteran said, before releasing white doves as a symbol of their hopes for a final peace settlement. Kim on Wednesday suspended plans for military moves aimed at the South, after the North raised tensions last week by demolishing a liaison office on its side of the border that symbolised inter-Korean cooperation.

Recent events showed that inter-Korean relations "can turn into a house of cards at any time", the South's JoongAng Daily said in an editorial yesterday on the anniversary.
The South Korean government has "persistently turned a blind eye" to Pyongyang's provocations, it said, resulting in a "slackening sense of security". "There is no free ride in keeping peace," the editorial read, adding: "We hope the government and defence ministry deeply reflect on the lesson of 70 years ago."

Seoul's relationship with Washington has been strained in recent years by the Trump administration's demands that it pay more towards the cost of keeping 28,500 US troops on the peninsula to protect the South from its nuclear-armed neighbour. But the allies "remain firmly committed to defending the hard-fought peace on the Korean Peninsula," the defence ministers' statement added. – AFP