PANMUNJOM, North Korea — Some Americans call it the “Forgotten War,” a 1950s conflict fought in a far-off country and so painful that even survivors have tried to erase their memories of it.
The North Koreans, however, have not forgotten. Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, the country is marking the milestone anniversary with a massive celebration Saturday for a holiday it calls “Victory Day,” even though the two sides only signed a truce and have yet to negotiate a peace treaty.
Signs and banners reading “Victory” lined the streets of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. The events are expected to culminate with a huge military parade and fireworks, one of the biggest extravaganzas in the impoverished country since leader Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011.
At the border in Panmunjom, the war never ended. Both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are heavily guarded, making it the world’s most fortified border, and dividing countless families with sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, on the other side. The North Koreans consider the presence of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea a continued occupation.
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In some ways, the war today is being waged outside the confines of the now-outdated armistice signed 60 years ago.
The disputed maritime border off the west coast of the Koreas is a hot spot for clashes. In 2010, a South Korean warship exploded, killing 46 sailors; the South blamed a North Korean torpedo. Later that year, a North Korean artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island killed four people, two of them civilians.
This year, Kim Jong Un enshrined the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a national goal, calling it a defensive measure against the U.S. military threat. In recent months, the warfare has extended into cyberspace, with both Koreas accusing the other of mounting hacking attacks that have taken down government websites in the North and paralyzed online commerce in the South.
Sixty years on, as both Koreas and the United States mark the anniversary, there is still no peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The start of the war
The two sides don’t even agree on who started the war.
Outside the North, historians say it was North Korean troops who charged across the border at the 38th parallel and launched an assault at 4 a.m. June 25, 1950.
North Korea agrees that war began at 4 a.m., but says U.S. troops attacked first. A photo offered as proof at a Pyongyang war museum shows U.S. soldiers advancing, rifles cocked, as they run past the 38th parallel.
“The real history is that the U.S. started the war on June 25, 1950,” Ri Su Jong, 21, a guide at a flower show in Pyongyang, said Tuesday. “They first attacked our country, and we quickly counterattacked.”
Ri, whose grandfathers fought in the war, said she was taught that the North Koreans marched into Seoul three days later, “liberating” South Korea from U.S. forces. A panoramic diorama at the war museum shows soldiers hoisting the North Korean flag in a sea of fire and destruction.
“The U.S. enemy engineered the war, boasting of the advantage of their air power, flying normally 500 or 700 flights, sometimes up to 1,000 flights a day, both on the front and in the rear,” said North Korean Maj. Gen. Kim Sung Un, 84, a war veteran. “All the factories and workplaces … were reduced to ashes.”
Dick Bonelli was a 19-year-old from the Bronx, a self-professed troublemaker, who was shipped off with the U.S. Marines to fight in a country he never knew existed. He arrived in September 1950 with the amphibious assault known as the “Inchon Landing,” the surprise attack that helped the U.S.-led United Nations forces push the North Koreans back.
Bonelli later took part in one of the most costly fights of the Korean War: the 17-day winter campaign in the mountainous region of the North then known by its Japanese name, the Chosin Reservoir. Several thousand were killed in combat, and thousands more died of frostbite.
“I tried for 30 to 40 years to forget it all,” Bonelli said in Pyongyang on Thursday, an American flag pinned to his blazer. “Who wants to remember that? It’s war. It was terrible.”
In all, the fighting took more than 1.2 million lives. More than 500,000 North Korean troops died, along with 183,000 Chinese who fought alongside them. On the other side, 138,000 South Koreans were killed, and 40,670 more from the U.N.-led force, including 36,900 Americans. Civilian deaths totaled almost 374,000 in South Korea and are unknown in the North.
A key challenge continues: the seemingly endless task of accounting for thousands of U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action (MIA). That mission, which competes for Pentagon resources with demands to also retrieve and identify MIAs from the battlefields of World War II and Vietnam, is beset with problems. The Pentagon says there are about 7,900 MIAs, of which approximately half are thought to be recoverable.
Bonelli is back in North Korea for the first time since 1950. He planned to revisit Fox Hill, the spot he guarded that first winter of the war. Tears in his eyes, he called it an emotional journey to a place that he tried for decades to forget.
Joy vs. sorrow
How the main players in the war mark the anniversary is a telling indication of how each country considers the conflict. North Korea is treating it as a celebration, an occasion to rally support for the country’s leader and draw attention to the division of the Korean Peninsula.
In South Korea, it’s a day of remembrance. For the government, it’s a day of thanks to the 16 U.N. nations that came to South Korea’s defense during the 1950-53 war. For many, it’s also a day of sorrow as they remember relatives left behind in the North, forever divided from their loved ones.
In Washington, D.C., President Obama on Thursday declared July 27 National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day. He paid tribute in his proclamation to the veterans who fought to “defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” He is to speak Saturday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Waiting for peace
In 1953, the architects of the armistice that took two years to negotiate were so sure the truce would be temporary that they cobbled together corrugated sheds to serve as conference halls. Sixty years later, those once-temporary buildings remain. On the North Korean side, the drafty building that served as the venue for armistice talks is now the “peace pagoda,” a popular stop on a fledgling tourist trail from Pyongyang. A tattered version of the armistice agreement and the U.N. flag are displayed.
The sheds straddling the border where the two sides sometimes meet are still called T1, T2 and T3: the “T” stands for “temporary.”
The visiting U.S. veteran, Bonelli, says a peace treaty is long overdue.
“It’s ridiculous to have an armistice this long and not to sit down, break bread and make peace,” he said. “The future is about the children. Let’s stop it.”
Associated Press writer Elizabeth Shim contributed to this report.