North and South Korea are today marking the 70th anniversary of the conflict that famously never ended; the Korean War began on 25 June 1950 and stopped, with only an armistice, in 1953.
In the South, veterans of the war were due to meet for a low-key commemoration that was expected to feature video messages from US president Donald Trump and other world leaders.
The main daily state-run newspaper of the North marked the day with a front-page commentary calling for people to follow in the footsteps of those who fought to defend the nation.
“Several decades have passed, but the danger of war has never left this soil,” the newspaper said, blaming “hostile forces” for seeking to crush North Korea.
Just two years ago, it looked like unprecedented talks between the leaders of the two Koreas, China and the US might result in a permanent peace treaty finally being signed – but in recent months, inter-Korean relations have dramatically deteriorated.
Improving relations with South Korea’s nuclear-armed neighbour was one of the main tickets through which president Moon Jae-in was elected, yet his goal of achieving peace on the Korean peninsula seems as far off as it has ever been in the past seven decades.
How did the Korean War begin?
After the end of the Second World War, Korea was to be granted independence from Japan, which had colonised it since 1910. But in the short term, from 1945 the country was administered by two different Allied forces – the northern half by the USSR, and the south by the US.
While the Soviets set up a North Korean Peoples’ Army equipped with Russian tanks an artillery, the US command in the south kept its local president’s forces to a minimum, fearing his expressed aim of uniting the peninsula by force.
In 1948 the leaders of the two halves – Syngman Rhee installed by the US in the south, and Kim Il-sung, who fought alongside communist forces during the Chinese civil war, in the north – declared their territories the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea respectively.
Clashes broke out regularly along the border, and after a series of increasingly bloody skirmishes the North Korean Peoples’ Army invaded on 25 June 1950, catching the US command off-guard and sweeping south to try and take the key strategic port city of Pusan.
What happened during the war?
The first year of the war was categorised by big swings in territorial control. Through the United Nations, the US declared North Korea as an aggressor and mobilised peacekeeping reinforcements from countries including Britain and Australia.
These forces held onto Pusan and then, in mid-September 1950, launched a counterattack that pushed the North Korean forces back well above the 38th parallel, the line of latitude that was used to divide the countries and became their de facto border.
In mid-October, the US General Douglas MacArthur met with president Harry Truman and declared the war would be won by Christmas, according to the historian Michael Hickey.
MacArthur had not reckoned on the intervention into the war of China. Beijing overtook the Soviets as the key ally for North Korea, flooding soldiers into the Korean peninsula in order to keep the conflict away from its own borders in November.
The UN forces were pushed back to a position well south of Seoul, but finally rallied and slowly advanced north again throughout the spring of 1951. The two sides finally settled into entrenched positions approximately along the 38th parallel, and began a long two-years stalemate.
How did it end?
The war devastated both North and South Korea as the line of control swept up and down the country. Some estimates put it that 70 per cent of all casualties were civilians.
“North Korea was flattened,” Bruce Cumings, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times. “The North Koreans see the American bombing as a Holocaust, and every child is taught about it.”
For much of the last two years of the conflict, both sides sought peace, as it became apparent that neither would achieve its goal of destroying the opposing regime and reunifying the peninsula.
Peace talks dragged on mainly because of an argument over what to do with thousands of North Korean prisoners of war held on the Souths’ prison island of Koje. The North insisted they all be returned to their country of origin, but many did not want to be repatriated. A deal was finally reached that allowed some to claim asylum, and in July 1953 Operation Big Switch saw each side hand over thousands of captive combatants across the line of control.
The fighting ended when an armistice was signed, though never ratified by South Korea, on 27 July 1953, The Demilitarised Zone or DMZ was created along the border, and a UN commission was established to oversee the armistice.
Throughout the war, historians say between three and four million people were killed. Of those, it is estimated that the dead included almost 40,000 US forces personnel, 400,000 Chinese (according to the Pentagon), 46,000 South Koreans, 215,000 North Koreans and 1,000 British soldiers.
So what happens next?
The Korean War represents “the ultimate ‘forever war’, a low-level conflict with dangerous flareups that have claimed countless lives over decades”, said Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “There is no sign it will formally be concluded anytime soon,” he added.
A group of Chinese veterans used Thursday’s anniversary to call for lasting peace. “We hope to use our voice — as Chinese veterans who fought against the West — to urge more people to unite,” 87-year-old veteran and Shanghai resident Yu Jihua told the AFP news agency.
But while Seoul continues to push for a permanent peace treaty, the greatest priority for its ally the US has now become the need to remove North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arsenal, which could have the potential to reach the mainland United States.
Progress in talks on denuclearisation has, like inter-Korean relations, spiralled rapidly downhill since the historic summit between Mr Kim and Mr Trump in Singapore in June 2018.
On Wednesday, Mr Kim ordered a suspension of military redeployments to the border that would have undone all the progress made in 2018, but levels of tension remain very high.
The US and South Korea marked Thursday by issuing a joint statement reminding Pyongyang to “meet its commitments” made in Singapore – when Mr Kim pledged to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and US Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper said they “remain firmly committed to defending the hard-fought peace on the Korean Peninsula, to include supporting ongoing diplomatic efforts for the complete denuclearisation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
The statement, which talks of the US’s “ironclad commitment to the defence of the Republic of Korea” (South Korea), makes no mention of working towards a permanent peace treaty.