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Korean Truce 50th Anniversary

Old soldiers gathering on the border where the Korean War ended 50 years ago Sunday remembered the snow and heat of the battlefields, sobbed at the memories of buddies lost and celebrated the prosperity of modern South Korea.

But their pride was tempered by tension over the communist North's nuclear programs.

More than 1,200 veterans, some in wheelchairs and many holding hands of spouses and children, gathered out of the rain in a tent in the southern half of Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone, to mark the 50th anniversary of the armistice ending the war.

More than 5 million people died, were wounded or went missing during the fighting.

Wearing combat medals, the veterans gazed at the foggy, rain-shrouded land of their enemy. A lone North Korean soldier stood guard as veterans toured a military hut straddling the demarcation line and took snapshots with the North as a backdrop.

"I came here in 1952. I was 24 years old. I came here again just a week ago at the age of 75 to see it again," said Victor Bielen, a former Marine from Wisconsin. "What comes to my mind first is the peace we have right now. That's the way we want it to be."

North Korea marked the anniversary with celebrations because its propaganda machine has always described the war as a victory for communist forces, rather than the stalemate it was. Red banners recalling the North's "triumph" hang prominently in Pyongyang's main square.

North Korean soldiers and civilians laid floral baskets and bowed Sunday at the foot of statues of Kim Il Sung, the national founder who launched the Korean War with an invasion of the South.

Officials laid wreaths and observed a moment's silence at the Friendship Tower, a Pyongyang monument, for the Chinese troops who died in the war, according to state media.

North Korean newspapers carried editorials celebrating a "brilliant victory" in the "fatherland liberation war" and promising "the era of new victory in the anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. confrontation."

In Seoul, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun urged North Korea to participate in talks with the United States and its allies to end the monthslong dispute over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.

"I strongly urge the North to abandon its nuclear ambition and to opt for the path toward peace and coexistence," Roh said at the city's Korean War Memorial.

"When North Korea chooses this path, South Korea and the rest of the international community will not spare all necessary aid."

The war pitted South Korea and a U.S.-led United Nations force against North Korea, which was backed by Chinese ground troops and Soviet aid. The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice signed at Panmunjom after two years and 17 days of cease-fire talks between the U.N. Command, North Korea and China.

For Eddie Wright, a former Australian infantry corporal who served in Korea for three years, it was clear who eventually won the war. South Korea has blossomed from the ashes of war to become the world's 12th-largest economy while the North has sunk into isolation and poverty.

"When I was here, there was nothing standing," Wright said. "Seeing what I have seen here in the past few days, high rises and all, it amazes me how they have recovered here."

A tearful Fred Daniel Bertrand, a former U.S. Marine sergeant, said the "most difficult part of the war was what you left behind, your buddies, people who didn't make it."

Retired Lt. Col. Don Graft of Ft. Myers, Fla., fought battles around Panmunjom in 1953 as an artillery battery commander for the 25th U.S. Infantry Division.

"Sitting up on the hill and freezing. Yes, that was the war," he said.

The morning ceremony at Panmunjom was timed to coincide with the hour the armistice was signed — 10 a.m. local time on July 27, 1953. An evening ceremony, including a 21-gun salute, was held at the U.S. military headquarters in Seoul to mark the time the cease-fire took effect 12 hours later.

At Imjingak village near the border, 1,000 anti-American activists rallied Sunday, accusing Washington of aggression on the Korean Peninsula. They called for peaceful reunification of the divided Koreas and shouted, "No war!"

The ongoing nuclear dispute flared in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of international agreements.

U.S. officials, who believe North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs, are seeking a diplomatic solution to entice the North to give up its program, and South Korean officials say talks with the North could come in August.

North Korea wants security guarantees and economic aid from the United States.

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