SEOUL, June 25 — Marking the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korea paid a solemn tribute Friday to the sacrifices of its soldiers and its allies with renewed calls for North Korea to stop its provocative acts.
Amid continued tensions over the North's deadly sinking of a warship in March, President Lee Myung-bak called on Pyongyang to halt military provocations and make efforts for co-prosperity with South Korea.
"Our ultimate goal is not a military confrontation but peaceful reunification," Lee said in his war anniversary speech at a national ceremony with thousands of Korean War veterans from home and overseas.
Expressing his appreciation to the sacrifices by UN troops that fought alongside South Korea, Lee said, "South Korean and UN soldiers, you were not only courageous and genuine soldiers but also a cornerstone of South Korea's history."
South Korea has marked this year's anniversary with dozens of government programs, including scholarships for the children of foreign Korean War veterans, music performances and a book chronicling the historical role of the allied countries.
This year's commemoration of the war resonates with the renewed sense of tension after a Seoul-led multinational investigation found the North responsible for the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. Forty-six sailors were killed when the naval ship Cheonan was downed by a North Korean torpedo.
President Lee, in his speech, demanded Pyongyang to apologize for the attack in which North Korea denies any involvement.
"The Cheonan incident remined us of the sad reality of the divided South and North," Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told the audience at a separate ceremony at the War Memorial hall after laying a wreath for the fallen heroes with the top US commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp.
"Freedom is not free, and we will continue to work together with our allies to bring peace on the Korean Peninsula," Kim said.
Hundreds of military officers from the 21 nations that fought for the South Korean side took part in the ceremony, which included a tasting event of rice balls that were often eaten as a quick lunchtime meal during the war.
During the ceremony, Sharp vowed to deter and defeat any further provocations by North Korea.
"True peace cannot exist when North Korea resorts to force and violence," Sharp said.
"The North Korean leadership must know that any further provocations will be dealt swiftly and decisively," Sharp warned.
On behalf of the military officers from the 21 allies, Col. Harry Cockburn, a New Zealand defense ministry official, said, "I hope the Republic of Korea continues to prosper, inspired by the sacrifices of Korean and United Nations soldiers 60 years ago." Republic of Korea is South Korea's official name.
By the end of next month, South Korea would have invited roughly 16,000 war veterans and diplomats to the country as part of the government's events to thank them for their support.
The fratricidal conflict broke out on June 25, 1950, when tank-led North Korean troops invaded South Korea. The US and 20 other allied countries fought on the side of South Korea under the UN banner.
Three years later, an uneasy armistice deal ended the first major conflict of the Cold War, leaving the two Koreas technically at war to this day.
Across their heavily armed border, nearly 2 million troops, including 28,500 US forces, are on standby against any provocations.
Although estimates of casualties vary, historians say more than 3 million people, including 2.5 million civilians, perished in the South and the North during the Korean War.
The UN allies suffered more than 40,000 battle deaths, including some 33,000 US soldiers.
During the six decades of war on hold, capitalist South Korea emerged as one of the world's dynamic economies while communist North Korea has gone economically bankrupt, with its people starving under a regime that insists on military-first policy.
Analysts agree that a peace treaty is necessary to truly end the Korean War, but also that it is still elusive.
"As a legal measure to prevent a possible armed clash, it's necessary to replace the armistice agreement with a peace treaty," said Baek Seung-joo, an analyst for the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses.
"For that, the two Koreas need to build up trust in politics and military."
"What's more important is North Korea's nuclear standoff should be resolved first," Baek said. Unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program, a peace treaty won't be possible, he said.
Pyongyang, on the eve of the 60th anniversary on Thursday, reiterated its claim that the war was started by "US imperialists" to occupy South Korea.
"The US imperialists craftily fabricated stories that the launch of the Korean War was 'a surprise attack from the North' and an 'entirely sudden event,'" the North's Korean Central News Agency reported.
"No matter what gimmick the US imperialists may employ, they can never hide their true colors as provokers of the Korean War." (PNA/Yonhap)