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By Matt Haldane
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, President Barack Obama said on Saturday that U.S. troops and their allies achieved victory in that conflict despite a lukewarm reception when they returned home.
The war ended in a stalemate in 1953, with the absence of a peace treaty resulting in a demilitarized zone that now separates North and South Korea. Pyongyang commemorated the day with a massive military parade and declared victory as well.
"Here, today, we can say with confidence that this war was no tie. Korea was a victory," Obama said to cheers from an outdoor crowd populated by war veterans from the United States and South Korea.
"When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom ... in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North, that's a victory; that's your legacy," he said.
The Korean War started in 1950 when the United States rallied the United Nations to send troops to counter the North's invasion of the South.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld and representatives from the South Korean government attended the event, which included a wreath-laying ceremony conducted to "Taps" before the 19 steel statues of Korean War soldiers at the memorial on Washington's National Mall.
The chairman of South Korea's National Policy Committee, Kim Jung-hoon, who represented the country's president, Park Geun-hye, acknowledged the ambiguous end to a long-fought war.
"This armistice was not the result of mere negotiations at the table," Kim said. "It was signed after endless battles, countless sacrifices and pain endured by our veterans and their grieved families."
When U.S. troops returned home, Obama said they went right back to work, with their sacrifices seemingly unacknowledged in what would become known as "The Forgotten War."
"Unlike the Second World War, Korea did not galvanize our country. These veterans did not return to parades. Unlike Vietnam, Korea did not tear at our country. These veterans did not return to protests," Obama said.
"Here in America, no war should ever be forgotten, and no veteran should ever be overlooked."
About 5,000 people attended the event, according to the commemoration committee. The crowd was filled with South Koreans and Americans alike, with spectators singing the South Korean national anthem nearly as loudly as the U.S. anthem.
Obama also acknowledged the strong military ties Washington has with South Korea, where more than 28,000 U.S. troops are now stationed. For some younger Koreans, the continued presence of troops is controversial, but the crowd erupted in applause when Obama mentioned his commitment to U.S. military supremacy.
"Our allies and adversaries must know the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always," Obama said. "That is what we do."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)