(ATTN: UPDATES with war veteran's report to Moon in 22nd para; TRIMS lead; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, June 25 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in called on North Korea Thursday to join a bold move to formally end the Korean War in peace overtures, coupled with a clear warning message, commemorating the conflict that started seven decades ago.
"We cannot commemorate the Korean War in a genuine manner yet. That is because the War has yet to come to an end," he said during a speech at the war anniversary event held at Seoul Air Base, a military compound just southeast of Seoul.
He was pointing out that the three-year war finished in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty, which has left the two Koreas technically at war and repeatedly facing sharp military tensions.
Moon voiced hope that the North will "boldly embark on an endeavor to end the most sorrowful war in world history."
"If we are going to talk about unification, we have to achieve peace first, and only after peace has continued for a long time will we be able to finally see the door to unification," he stressed, addressing the nighttime ceremony, titled Salute to the Heroes, to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.
He reaffirmed that South Korea has no intention to force its system on the communist neighbor and emphasized the importance of building peace first.
The president stressed the two Koreas' competition over political and economic systems "already ended a long time ago," noting that South Korea's gross domestic product is more than 50 times that of North Korea and its trade is over 400 times larger.
"We pursue peace and intend to live well together," he said. "We will continuously search for routes that are mutually beneficial for both Koreas through peace. Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first."
The previous day, the North abruptly announced a decision to suspend "military action plans" against the South, a turnaround from weeks of brinkmanship highlighted by the unilateral severance of all bilateral communications lines and demolition of a joint liaison office.
Many regard the 2018 hard-won military accord between the two sides as virtually nullified. The Kim Jong-un regime's intentions remain unconfirmed.
While South Korea is against a war in pursuit of peace, Moon warned, the North would face a "firm response" in case of threats to the people here.
"Our military has strength to ward off any threat. It has a thorough readiness posture and will never allow even a handspan of our territory on land, sea and in the air to be violated again," he said. "The Republic of Korea that the people have protected has now become strong enough to safeguard them. It has power and spirit strong enough to create peace."
The president added, "If anyone threatens our people's safety and lives, we will firmly respond. Our national defense capabilities are strong enough to repel any provocation from any direction."
He cited the steadfast alliance with the United States despite the ongoing process of transferring the wartime operational control of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul.
"We are meticulously preparing the transfer of wartime operational control. Based on our own strength, we will defend and build peace without fail," he said.
Just ahead of the televised address on the war, often dubbed the Forgotten War, Moon honored the remains of 147 South Korean soldiers killed in the war. The flag-draped cases of remains were airlifted from Hawaii. The remains were among those sent to the Hawaii labs of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, mostly as a result of North Korea-U.S. joint excavation work conducted from 1990-1994. Those were found to be remains of South Koreans killed in action during the war.
The anniversary event was meant to show respect for fallen service members and demonstrate Seoul's commitment to friendly cooperation with 22 nations that fought alongside it against invading North Korea under the United Nations flag, according to Cheong Wa Dae.
"What we need now is to remember the countless sacrifices which have become the foundation for today's freedom, peace and prosperity and to have pride in ourselves," Moon said, speaking in front of a group of South Korean and foreign war veterans.
"There are no borders when honoring patriots and veterans," he went on to say. "We will remember and honor the noble sacrifices of fallen soldiers through various veterans affairs programs conducted jointly with the U.N. member states that sent troops to fight in the Korean War."
He reminded the public of the project to construct a Memorial Wall of Remembrance in Washington D.C. by 2022 in order to demonstrate that "the 'great alliance' is rooted in the noble sacrifices of Korean War veterans."
Placed next to the remains of South Korean soldiers throughout the event were the remains of six American service members discovered by South Korean defense ministry's Agency for KIA Recovery & Identification.
Moon received a symbolic report from a Korean War veteran on a combat mission completed. The veteran then saluted Moon, who quickly returned the salute.
While around 300 attendees stood in silence for the fallen heroes, a 21-gun salute occurred in show of respect equivalent to that for a head of state.
Moon then bestowed the Order of Military Merit on one surviving Korean War veteran. Two others were posthumously presented with medals.
Video messages of the 22 participating countries were played, with their ambassadors to South Korea in attendance at the ceremony, through which "international solidarity" has been reaffirmed, Cheong Wa Dae said.
In a brief message from the White House Rose Garden, for "all of those brave men and women that fought to keep communism out," U.S. President Donald Trump said, "Thank you. We salute you. You are very special people ... It was an incredible thing that we all together did."
As a representative, Amb. Joanne Doornewaard of the Netherlands received a Plague of Peace made of smelted parts of canteens, helmets and other military equipment used by the soldiers of the 22 nations, as well as barb-wire fences in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Meanwhile, the veterans ministry limited the number of participants in this year's anniversary ceremony due to the spread of the new coronavirus. The ceremony also began after sunset in consideration of elderly people's summertime health.
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