US, South Korea urge North to denuclearize on 70th anniversary of war’s start
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 25, 2020
SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea urged North Korea to denuclearize and abide by past agreements aimed at improving relations Thursday as the allies marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war on the divided peninsula.
The appeals came after weeks of inter-Korean tensions that culminated with Wednesday’s surprise announcement by the North that it was suspending plans for military retaliation against the South.
North Korea has expressed increasing frustration over the lack of progress in efforts to restart nuclear talks with the United States, which hit a high point during a June 2018 summit in Singapore. At the time, leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump made a vague promise to “work toward denuclearization.”
Talks collapsed in February after the leaders failed to agree on the extent of sanctions relief in exchange for disarmament steps and other details.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed hope the North would rejoin efforts to forge a lasting peace, since the war ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty. But he warned that Seoul will respond firmly to any threats.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said earlier that they “remain firmly committed to defending the hard-fought peace on the Korean Peninsula, to include supporting ongoing diplomatic efforts for the complete denuclearization” of North Korea.
“Both leaders call on [North Korea] to meet its commitments in alignment with the Singapore Summit joint statement,” along with an inter-Korean military agreement and other deals, according to the joint statement, which was issued to commemorate the septuagennial.
The war, which pitted U.S.-led United Nations and South Korean troops against communist North Korean and Chinese forces, ended in a stalemate, paving the way for decades of continued hostilities.
It began on June 25, 1953, when tens of thousands of North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th Parallel, capturing Seoul within days and prompting President Harry S. Truman to send American troops to stop the spread of communism in the first military action of the Cold War.
Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, the United Nations Command and the Combined Forces Command, honored the sacrifices of those who died during a ceremony Thursday at his headquarters on Camp Humphreys.
More than 245,000 South Korean soldiers, 36,000 American troops and 3,000 United Nations troops from other countries died in the course of the war, he said, adding that more than 300 South Koreans and 62 Americans were killed as the joint defense continued after the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
More than 7,500 American troops remain unaccounted for after being lost in the war, including 5,300 that are believed to be buried on the North Korean side.
Fifteen other nations joined the fighting under the U.N. banner, with Britain contributing 35,000 troops and Canada 16,000.
Millions of Korean civilians also perished on both sides of the border, with North Korea hard hit by an unrelenting U.S. air strike campaign.
“Let us never forget their sacrifices, and let us remember them when we reflect on the sacrifices upon which our alliance is founded, an alliance born of necessity but forged in blood,” he said.
“We remain ready to defend [South Korea] at a moment’s notice,” Abrams said.
Events marking the anniversary were relatively low-key because of the coronavirus pandemic, which prevented many American veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, from traveling to South Korea.
Moon spoke during an evening repatriation ceremony for the remains of 147 South Koreans who perished in the war and were returned by the U.S. this week after being recovered from North Korea.
Six sets of U.N. remains found by South Korean search crews also were being returned to the U.S. defense agency in charge of recovering and identifying the nation’s missing service members.
“We cannot commemorate the Korea War in a genuine manner yet … because the war has yet to come to an end,” the South Korean president said. “I hope that North Korea will also boldly embark on an endeavor to end the most sorrowful war in world history.”
“We long for peace. However, if anyone threatens our people’s safety and lives, we will firmly respond,” he added during the ceremony at an air base near Seoul. “Our national defense capabilities are strong enough to repel any provocation from any direction.”
Wednesday’s about-face by North Korea followed weeks of bellicose rhetoric by Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, capped by a June 16 blast that devastated an inter-Korean liaison office on the North’s side of the border.
Kim Jong Un presided over a meeting of the military commission of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday that “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the South,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Many experts have said the North is likely trying to pressure Seoul into offering more economic concessions and support in future negotiations with the United States.
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.