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As living memories of the Korean War fade, its consequences become clearer

Korean War veterans from the Republic of Korea salute at a ceremony Thursday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating the anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The agreement was signed July 27, 1953.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
Korean War veterans from the Republic of Korea salute at a ceremony Thursday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating the anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. The agreement was signed July 27, 1953.

Seventy years ago, the Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a victory or a peace deal, and veterans marked the occasion Thursday at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., with some even joining activists pushing for a formal end to the war.

But as most Korean War vets are well into their 90s, they still struggle with America's perceptions of what has been called "the Forgotten War."

"We don't call it the Forgotten War, we call it the forgotten victory," said retired U.S. Marine Col. Warren Wiedhahn. "We saved South Korea from becoming a communist country."

Wiedhahn said 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 the United Nations force, led by the U.S., had held on to more of the Korean peninsula before the cease-fire. At a certain point they had driven North Korean forces all the way to the Chinese border before being pushed south again.

"Now don't get me wrong. The [cease-fire] was welcomed because that meant that the Marines and soldiers were not getting killed anymore. But to me, to us who had fought in the beginning, it was kind of an anti-climactic," he said.

At 94, Wiedhahn is president of the Chosin Few, a group of vets who fought at Chosin Reservior, a freezing 17-day battle with the Chinese army.

Participants march in Seoul, South Korea, during a July 22 rally commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. This year's anniversary was marked with a characteristically martial parade in North Korea — attended by Russian and Chinese delegations — and in South Korea by inviting veterans of the Korean War to honor the fallen.
Ahn Young-joon / AP
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AP
Participants march in Seoul, South Korea, during a July 22 rally commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement. This year's anniversary was marked with a characteristically martial parade in North Korea — attended by Russian and Chinese delegations — and in South Korea by inviting veterans of the Korean War to honor the fallen.

Membership is now being gradually passed on to the next generation.

"I actually had no idea my dad was involved with the Chosin Reservoir. He didn't say one word about it," said Nancy Weigle, whose father, Gerald, was a Navy corpsman who died in 2018. Like many Korea vets he didn't talk about it much for the first few decades, Weigle said.

"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," she said. That came later, as Korean products and culture spread across the globe. Her dad was one of many Korean War vets who were invited by South Korea to visit Seoul.

Weigle is now a legacy member of the Chosin Few, carrying on their stories.

Robert Grier, 90, served in Korea just a few years after the U.S. military desegregated, a memory that stood out for him even as he finds it harder to recall many other details of his service.

"Black soldiers didn't get promoted very much back then. It was always in the lower ranks," he said.

Grier eventually made captain. He has just one memory of the armistice in 1953.

"We were not happy," he said. "[We] didn't like to lose things. We thought that we lost that."

Korea was the first of many wars after World War II with, at best, ambiguous endings that most Americans didn't see as success. That includes Afghanistan and Iraq.

Members of the military perform the color guard at a ceremony Thursday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Members of the military perform the color guard at a ceremony Thursday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement.

"I sympathize with the Korean War vets," said Welton Chang, who served two tours in Iraq.

"Their experience was much more intense, and certainly the casualties were higher," he adds.

Before Iraq, Chang also deployed to Korea for a year, during which North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon and tested intercontinental ballistic missiles. His time there showed him the value of what Americans and others did for South Korea.

"Older Koreans are still very thankful for U.S. involvement and were often the ones who would come up to us on the street or hiking a mountain somewhere and shake our hands and say 'thank you,' " Chang said.

"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," he said. "But they saw it as this long, unbroken line of U.S. commitment in Asia."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence
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.