On June 25, 1950, N Korea invaded the South. Over the next three years, millions of soldiers and civilians lost their lives. As foreign veterans return for the commemoration, tensions on the Korean peninsula remain high.
Millions of soldiers and civilians were killed in the three-year war between South and North Korea
Like most men his age, 78-year-old Jang In Joon fought the invading North Korean army in the summer of 1950. Though many years have passed, he still remembers the horrors of the battlefield.
"I would be standing next to 20 other soldiers and the enemy would attack and everyone around me would be dead", he said. "Fighting on a hill, the bodies would just roll down. We were told not to step on dead men’s faces so they could be identified later – we had to walk on their stomachs or legs."
As Jang and other former soldiers remembered the start of the Korean War, thousands of veterans from the 21 nations that came to South Korea’s defense 60 years ago arrived in Seoul.
Every year, South Korean and foreign veterans pay their respects to the dead
Ordered to stand and die
At a ceremony at the US army's Yongsan garrison in Seoul, soldiers past and present paid tribute to General Walton H. Walker, who led the defense around the so called Busan perimeter during the early days of the war.
The general, who later died in a car accident, legendarily ordered his men to stand and die as the North Koreans advanced.
Korean veteran Jang said he kept Walker's words close to his heart. He said he was forever thankful for the US' sacrifices and those of other nations.
However, he did point out that the US, which trained South Korea's military in the years before the invasion, did not prepare it sufficiently enough to defend their nation.
"The American military did not give us the artillery to fight back. They did things on their own. Maybe if they had given us some better weapons, things would have been different," he said.
He also added that he regretted that only an armistice had been signed in 1953. He thinks North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan navy ship in March this year, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed.
Criticism of Washington’s decisions during war
Some US veterans also think that Washington's decisions during the war enabled the Pyongyang regime to continue provoking the South today. 80-year-old Marion Rankin, a former POW, thought General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the UN forces, had it right.
"When we were over here in 1950 through 1953, why didn’t they let us go on and do our job?" he asked. "We got to the 38th parallel a second time and the president ordered us to halt. General MacArthur, I think, was a great man. He wanted us to keep fighting them but they wouldn’t let us do it. If they had, they wouldn’t be having all these problems now."
US General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the UN forces, was sacked by President Truman in 1951
In a case of tension between the political decision-makers and military leaders not seen again in the US until the recent confrontation between President Obama and his Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal, President Truman sacked General MacArthur in 1951 for failing to stick to US policy in the region.
MacArthur had argued for a widening of the war with attacks on North Korea's ally China, if necessary also with nuclear weapons.
Author: Jason Strother (Seoul)
Editor: Grahame Lucas