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Sunday Marks 50th Anniversary of Korean Armistice - 2003-07-25

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the truce that ended the Korean War. The fact that there was never a formal peace treaty after all that time is an issue some experts say has resonance in the current nuclear stand-off with North Korea.

More than 50 years ago, as the world's so-called great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, maneuvered behind-the-scenes around the world, a war was raging on the Korean peninsula.

On one side, American soldiers dominated the United Nations Command, which also included support from 21 other countries. On the other side were North Korea and China.

Retired Navy Rear-Admiral Jerry Kuhn says by the time he arrived on the front lines in 1952, the initially fierce fighting had largely turned into the dangerous monotony of dug-in trench warfare. "You know, it settled down to a "hold the line, keep what we've got, don't let them advance" - and, in the meantime, we've got to keep going out there and making sure that they know we're still alive and active, and that we are intent on maintaining that line," he says. Admiral Kuhn was a junior officer who served as a chaplain for U.S. Marine units. "We would use mortar pits [or] spaces that were not visible too much to the North Koreans or to the Chinese, gather guys together, whether it would be [an] artillery place or something in back," he recalls, "and you [pretended to have] church there - walked the line, just walked from one guy's dugout to the next one, and talk, and maybe get a couple of them together. Maybe they want to sing a hymn, sing a song, have a prayer, read a scripture, talk - just like an itinerant preacher, that's what you are. And you did a lot of walking. Because my unit, my units were all infantry. They were all involved in living in trenches."

The three-year war had descended into an intractable stalemate by 1953, so both sides agreed to a truce. The end result was two countries, North Korea and South Korea, separated by a three-kilometer wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that stretches 243 kilometers across the entire peninsula.

When the smoke cleared, the death tolls were staggering. The Chinese lost an estimated one million soldiers and the North Koreans had lost 600,000. The figure for U.N. troops was about 300,000, more than two-thirds of them South Koreans. Of that total, about 37,000 Americans were killed or missing in action.

The July 27, 1953, armistice ended the fighting, but technically didn't end the war. "After three years and one month of extremely bloody conflict, it was suspended," explains William Drennan of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "No winners. No losers. No peace. Just a suspended state of war."

Mr. Drennan says finally reaching a peace treaty to end the war, after all these decades, would enhance the security of the entire peninsula, which he says should negate the need for nuclear weapons. "If we're able to arrive at a genuine peace, then that cuts the ground out from under North Korea's claim that they're threatened and that they have to have these [nuclear] weapons for deterrent purposes," he says.

Several attempts to reach a peace settlement following the war failed. Pyongyang accuses the United States of preparing to wage war against North Korea and recently threatened to abandon the armistice agreement. Pyongyang also is believed to have re-started its program to produce weapons-grade plutonium, in violation of international agreements.

Despite current tensions, Korean War commemorative events planned in Washington include a traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the national military cemetery, the unveiling of a new U.S. postal stamp to honor Korean War veterans and a musical tribute hosted by American television personality Ed McMahon.

Another planned event allows Korean War vets from around the United States to visit embassies of the other countries that were part of the U.N. Command. The embassies of Britain, Italy and New Zealand are among those not taking part.

However, the Norwegian embassy's Toennes Log said his country is taking advantage of the opportunity to let people know about Norway's contribution to the war - a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH, tent. "We thought it would be nice to show off a little bit of our embassy," he said, "and also show the veterans what Norway did in the Korean War. Not many know about it, but we had a MASH tent, called Nor-MASH." No Norwegians were killed in action during the war, but 623 served in the Nor-MASH tent.

The director of the Korean War Veterans Armistice Day Coordinating Committee, J. Norbert Reiner, says the need for a lasting resolution to the war is a nagging issue that won't go away. "It's a mosquito bite that keeps on itching," he says, "and no matter what you put on, it's going to keep on itching."

Mr. Reiner expresses hope that at least where the Korean War is concerned, a new generation will be able to effect change for the better.