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70 years since the Korean armistice, some call for an official end to the conflict


Seventy years ago this week, the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace deal. North Koreans have marked the anniversary with huge military parades attended by Russian and Chinese delegations. In South Korea, veterans of the War honor the fallen. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with some Korean veterans here in the U.S. about what this moment means to them.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Even if they lied about their age to enlist, the youngest Korean War vets are now pushing 90.

ROBERT GREER SR: My name is Robert W. Greer Sr.

LAWRENCE: Robert Greer served 11 years in the Air Force in Korea and then Japan. But his memories are dimming. His son Robert is now his caretaker.

ROBERT GREER JR: Yeah. Daddy, you were telling me earlier about the Black soldiers and their getting promoted.

LAWRENCE: That memory is still sharp. Greer joined just a couple years after the U.S. military desegregated.

ROBERT GREER SR: Black soldiers didn't get promoted very much back then. It was always in the lower ranks.

LAWRENCE: Greer eventually made captain. He has just one memory of the armistice in 1953.

ROBERT GREER JR: You were happy about it.

ROBERT GREER SR: We were not happy.

ROBERT GREER JR: Oh, you were not happy.

ROBERT GREER SR: No - didn't like to lose things. We thought that we lost that.

LAWRENCE: They felt like they'd lost. Korea didn't end with victory or surrender or anything Americans back home widely understood. It's one reason Korea is called the forgotten war by some - not by Colonel Warren Wiedhahn.

WARREN WIEDHAHN: We don't call it forgotten war. We call it the forgotten victory. We saved South Korea from becoming a communist country.

LAWRENCE: Wiedhahn says it might not have been clear at the time, but it sure is now. South Korea is democratic and among the world's leading economies, while the North is an impoverished, brutal dictatorship. Wiedhahn just wishes they'd held more of the Korean Peninsula.

WIEDHAHN: I think General MacArthur was a [expletive].

LAWRENCE: General Douglas MacArthur won and then spectacularly lost most of Northern Korea before the cease-fire line was drawn.

WIEDHAHN: Now, don't get me wrong. The peace treaty was welcomed because that meant that the Marines and the soldiers were not getting killed anymore.

LAWRENCE: At 94, Wiedhahn is president of the Chosin Few, a group of vets who fought at Chosin Reservoir, a freezing 17-day battle with the Chinese army. Membership is now being gradually passed on to the next generation.

NANCY WEIGLE: But I actually had no idea my dad was involved with the Chosin Reservoir, and he didn't say one word about it.

LAWRENCE: Nancy Weigle's dad, Gerald, was a Navy corpsman, a medic. He died in 2018. Like many Korea vets, he didn't talk about it much for the first few decades.

WEIGLE: The World War II vets had obviously been celebrated. There was a clear victory. And when these guys came back, nobody even knew what Korea was.

LAWRENCE: That came later as Korean products and culture spread across the globe. Her dad was one of many Korean War vets who was invited by South Korea to visit Seoul. Nancy is now a legacy member of the Chosin Few, carrying on their stories. And, of course, the U.S. military has another legacy in Korea - the hundreds of thousands who have served there since. Welton Chang did two tours in Iraq. But his first deployment was Korea.

WELTON CHANG: I was there when North Korea detonated their first nuclear weapon.

LAWRENCE: In 2006, a good reminder that the countries are not at peace. Chang says he could feel the importance of those who came before him.

CHANG: I think older Koreans were often the ones who would come up to us, you know, on the street or hiking a mountain somewhere and shake our hands and say thank you. You know, it was always super-awkward because you kind of have to remind them that, like, I wasn't even born when any of this stuff happened.

LAWRENCE: Seventy years later, U.S. and Korean troops are still looking across that cease-fire line, a physical reminder of the war and those who fought it. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.