SEOUL, June 24 (Yonhap) -- President Lee Myung-bak saluted hundreds of Korean War veterans from home and abroad Friday for helping to save South Korea from the North's invasion and vowed to bring home hundreds of prisoners of war still believed to be held in the communist nation.
"I deeply bow my head and express my respect to you who devoted your hearts and bodies to the country by putting studying behind and picking up guns despite young ages," Lee said during a reception that the government hosted in commemoration of the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Referring to foreign veterans, Lee said that he offers "deep respect for your precious sacrifices" made to "this unfamiliar nation." "You deserve to be proud of yourselves," he said during the ceremony at the War Museum of Korea in central Seoul, which drew about 900 people, including veterans and foreign diplomats.
Lee also renewed his commitment to bring home hundreds of South Korean prisoners of war who are still believed to be held alive in North Korea.
"There are still many South Korean POWs who must be looking toward the South from North Korea, unable to return to the bosom of the fatherland. They are never forgotten," Lee said.
South Korea estimates about 500 former South Korean soldiers are alive in the North after being taken as prisoners of war during the conflict. North Korea claims it is not holding any POWs and that all former South Korean soldiers voluntarily defected.
Also in attendance were some ex-POWs who have returned home after escaping from the North.
"I acutely felt the importance of freedom while suffering from harsh treatment and contempt in North Korea for decades," said Yoo Young-bok, a former POW who returned home after fleeing the North in 2000 at the age of 70.
William Mac Swain, an American veteran, 80, told the ceremony that he is proud of helping defend South Korea, which rebuilt itself from the ashes of the war into a stable democracy with a robust economy.
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