At an event Saturday commemorating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War, President Obama paid tribute to the valor of those soldiers who fought through some of the most brutal wartime conditions in modern history to protect the freedom of millions of South Koreans.
When the war ended with a cease-fire rather than a surrender, Mr. Obama noted, some offered the cynical quip "die for a tie" to describe the result of the war that had claimed the lives of more than 36,000 Americans and over a million South Koreans.
But "that war was no tie," the president said as he stood before thousands of veterans and their families on the National Mall, within sight of the Korean War Memorial. "Korea was a victory."
As a result of the heroism of those who fought, he said, tens of millions of South Koreans are able to thrive in a free and prosperous country instead of living under the thumb of tyranny in North Korea.
"Let it be said that Korea was the first battle where freedom held its ground and free peoples refused to yield," he said. To the veterans and their families, he added, "You have the thanks of a grateful nation and your shining deeds will live now and forever."
The president recalled the sleepy homecoming that greeted American soldiers when they returned from Korea, contrasting it with the jubilant parades that greeted veterans of World War II and the controversial protests that faced veterans of the Vietnam War upon their return.
"Among many Americans tired of war, there was, it seemed, a desire to forget, to move on," he said. "You, our veterans of Korea, deserved better ... No war should ever be forgotten. No veteran should ever be overlooked."
He also noted how the draw-down after World War II left the military ill-prepared to fight the early stages of the Korean War, saying the U.S. must not make that mistake again.
"Today as we end a decade of war and reorient our forces for the future," he said, "our allies and adversaries must know the United States will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known - bar none, always. That is what we do."
The president was introduced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, who told the audience that Korean War veterans "showed the world that different peoples and different nations can accomplish many, many good things for the world when we work together."
He lodged a plea for greater international cooperation and multilateralism, saying one of the lessons of the Korean War was that "alliances and international institutions are extensions of our influence, not constraints on our power, and they are critical to our long term peace and stability."}
Sixty years after the armistice that ended the Korean War, America still technically remains in a state of war with North Korea. The cease-fire brought an end to overt hostilities and fighting on the Korean peninsula, but the two nations never officially negotiated an end to the conflict.
In the years since the war, North Korea has bounced from one bout of provocation to the next. The most recent crisis occurred in February, when the North Korean government, under young leader Kim Jong Un,, sparking a diplomatic crisis and threatening the security of South Korea and other U.S. allies in the region. U.S. officials have worked for years to bring a halt to North Korea's nuclear program, but thus far, their efforts have come up short.