By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, July 26 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed his gratitude Friday to Korean War veterans for their service that helped defend South Korea and eventually led to its remarkable prosperity.
"Korean War veterans stepped forward to serve at a defining time in our history, and they deserve our thanks," he said in a statement to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the three-year Korean War.
"They liberated millions of people from tyranny and helped forge a strong and lasting partnership with the Republic of Korea -- one that has endured for more than six decades because of our shared values and shared sacrifice," he said.
Along with President Barack Obama, Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, plans to attend for formal Armistice Day ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Hagel, who was wounded twice in Vietnam, is the first U.S. defense secretary to have served in combat while enlisted.
In remembering the end of the Korean War, Hagel emphasized, "We also commemorate the beginning of a new era in the history of the region -- a period of unprecedented growth, security, and prosperity."
He was apparently referring to South Korea's rapid economic development and democratization over the past six decades. The South has also become a key regional ally of the U.S., playing a role in regional and global security.
In contrast, communist North Korea remains an impoverished and isolated state.
The U.S. led U.N. troops to defend the South against the invading North supported by China. U.S. military casualties were 36,574 killed and 103,284 wounded.
The two Koreas are still technically at war as the conflict ended in a ceasefire, not a formal peace treaty.
As a legacy, around 28,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea.
"The United States remains committed to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," Hagel said. "Just as Korean War veterans held the line from Pusan (Busan) to Panmunjom, so too do these current-day defenders stand ready to help guard freedom as well as promote peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and throughout East Asia."
In an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency earlier this month, the secretary said Washington's commitment to the alliance with Seoul will remain unchanged.
"The alliance has been remarkably effective and strong. I believe we will keep it strong. And this has also remarkably been the policy of the United States of America -- that alliance -- for 63 years through every different administration, Republican, Democratic, conservative, liberal, Congresses," he said. "The ebb and flow of American politics has never changed at all that doctrine and strategy and that commitment."
He urged North Korea to take steps towards a "complete, irreversible denuclearization" to lay the groundwork for talks with the U.S. on replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.
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