Sixty years ago, on the early morning of June 25, 1950, communist North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea. The Korean War would test our will and commitment to defend our freedom in the face of communist aggression. The Korean War was the first large-scale military confrontation to take place since the start of the Cold War; it would be known as one of the deadliest wars of the 20th century.
Sixteen countries, including the United States, came to defend the Republic of Korea under the United Nations banner. During the three years of war, approximately 37,000 American soldiers lost their lives. An inscription on the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington says those brave young men and women in uniform came to "defend a country they never knew and a people they never met." Their outstanding courage, selfless sacrifice and unbreakable will enabled us to defend our freedom, attain peace and become a democratic, free and open society. Fortunately, the Korean War ended in 1953. Unfortunately, however, an armistice ended the Korean War without reunification of the Korean Peninsula, leaving Korea as the only divided country in the world today.
As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer our deepest, most sincere gratitude to all the American veterans and their families for what they did. The friendship and bond that we share is reinforced by a strong and robust military alliance, which in turn has been the basis for the Republic of Korea's remarkable twin achievements of the past six decades, namely, achieving economic growth and becoming a true liberal democracy.
Now, the Republic of Korea hopes to contribute to global peace and common prosperity. The year the Korean War started, we were one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita gross domestic product of less than $40. In 2009, we officially joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee (DAC), transitioning from a country that once received aid to one that now provides for others. This transformation took place in just one generation. Attaining and maintaining peace is our shared responsibility. In this regard, the Republic of Korea is taking part in peacekeeping operations in 14 countries around the world. This year, we will be hosting the Group of 20 Summit in Seoul, and in 2012, we will host the second Nuclear Security Summit, which was first hosted by the United States. These all will be opportunities for us to strengthen international cooperation, which is so vital in resolving many of the global challenges we face collectively. By doing our part, we hope to ensure a better future for all.
The Republic of Korea is a partner, working together with the United States in many parts of the world. The Joint Vision for the Alliance that President Obama and I agreed to last year is a vision for a strategic alliance befitting the 21st century. The Vision helps us face the global challenges of today and tomorrow, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, the financial crisis and energy security through a close partnership based on shared values and mutual trust. Such partnerships enable us to prepare for and effectively tackle the multifaceted challenges we are bound to face.
Our brave and dedicated men and women in uniform are working alongside each other to defend freedom, liberty and peace. In Iraq, Afghanistan and off the coast of Somalia, they are working, rebuilding and forging ahead to make our world a safer, better place. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which was signed three years ago and is awaiting congressional consent, will elevate our partnership and make it stronger. It also will expand the role of the United States in the Northeast Asian region.
Our two countries have been working closely together regarding the sinking of our navy vessel the Cheonan by a torpedo attack from a North Korean submarine. The United States has displayed once again its commitment as an ally and friend as we deal with this tragic event. North Korea, meanwhile, has not changed at all; it is still adamantly hanging on to its desire to acquire nuclear weapons. The Korea-U.S. alliance must continue to work with the international community and persuade North Korea to give up such reckless ambitions.
Our aim is to achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. We seek common prosperity for both Koreas, and we strive to achieve peaceful unification of the peninsula. The Korean Peninsula must cease to be synonymous with strife and division; it must become the new cradle of peace for Northeast Asia and beyond.
The phenomenal growth that we achieved is a source of pride for Koreans and a remarkable achievement for American foreign policy. The alliance is also an example for others. Whenever I am in Washington, I pay tribute by visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial. I meet with the Korean War veterans, and they tell me how proud they are to see Korea doing so well today. I, along with all Koreans, feel profound respect for and gratitude to all the veterans.
As we have been doing for many years, we are inviting Korean War veterans and their families back to Korea. We hope they will be able to witness how much Korea has changed over the years. We hope they will feel how grateful we are; we hope they will always remember our deep appreciation and affection.
The Republic of Korea and the United States share a bond that will endure. This bond was forged in the trenches of war 60 years ago, but it is my hope that it will continue to be an alliance that brings peace and prosperity to all in this new century. I am confident that it will.
Lee Myung-bak is president of the Republic of Korea.
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