SEOUL—Former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos wore his “never forget” ribbon on his left finger the whole day of Saturday, even after the colorful ceremony that commemorated the armistice that ended the Korean War 60 years ago.
Ramos, 85, who fought with the 29th Battalion Combat Team from the Philippines in that war, and seven other Filipino veterans attended the Commemorative Ceremony for the United Nations Forces on the 60th Anniversary of the Korean Armistice.
“The ribbon was a reminder for us to never forget,” Ramos told the Inquirer in an interview after the ceremony. “But for my part, I assured my fellow veterans seated near me and the ministers that regardless of age, regardless of the lapse of 60 years, the veterans, especially the Filipino veterans of the Korean War who have survived will still be around to help in the defense of freedom and democracy on the Korean Peninsula.”
Veterans from the 21 countries that sent combat forces to Korea in 1950 came to the ceremony. Some were in wheelchairs, others stooped and walked slowly with their canes.
Many remained sprightly, and all of them still had vivid memories of the war they fought 60 years ago under the United Nations flag and for which South Korea formally thanked them on Saturday.
Around 300 veterans attended the commemorative ceremony for the UN Forces as the world remembered the 60th year of the armistice agreement that ended the fierce fighting but did not lead to a peace treaty.
South Korea and North Korea are still technically at war.
But the reality did not dampen the enthusiasm of the veterans, most of them in their 80s, who flew from all parts of the world to revisit Korea and join the Koreans in remembering.
They gathered at the War Memorial of Korea in Central Seoul, unmindful of the searing summer heat.
Young soldiers of different nationalities saluted the veterans, and middle-aged Koreans applauded as the old soldiers made a beeline for their designated seats.
Ramos and his fellow Filipino war veterans, retired Generals Benjamin Santos and Prudencio Regis; Colonels Vicente Alhambra, Ishmael Rodrigo, and Jovencio Dominguez; and Lieutenants Dionisio Layaoen and Severino Aquino traveled to Seoul for the commemoration.
Alhambra, who was an intelligence officer in the war, is the oldest among the group at 97 years old.
“The war veterans still have some eminence who can still do back-channeling,” Ramos said. “Korean war veterans’ associations are well organized like we are in the Philippines who can still provide a credible, effective and relevant sounding board for our leaders to consider for the purpose of helping to eventually attain enduring peace and sustainable development on the Korean Peninsula.”
He went on: “The peace treaty by itself is the most important agreement on all sides … . We can see from the very expansive and sincere expression of thanks and appreciation by Korean officials and the people that they are reaping the benefits [of the armistice]. From a war ravaged nation, they are now a G20 nation.”
Joining the veterans were around 4,000 others, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, diplomats, government representatives and families of veterans.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin represented the Philippine government, accompanied by Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Luis Cruz.
The program included a traditional Korean dance and ended with a parade of flags of the United Nations, South Korea, and the 21 allied nations in a tribute where Korean children sang Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For.”
The wildly applauded tribute brought tears to the eyes of not a few at the ceremony.
“It was a wonderful ceremony,” Santos, 84, told the Inquirer after the program.
Santos recalled that all the nations that fought in the three-year war “participated wholeheartedly.”
“The allied countries were ready to help for the preservation of peace and democracy,” he said.
Santos urged Filipinos “to work together” as well.
“Without peace we cannot attain a bright future that we can have together,” he said.
But it has been an “unstable peace” on the Korean Peninsula for the past 60 years as Park, South Korea’s first female president, said in her brief speech at the ceremony.
“For the past 60 years on the Korean Peninsula, there has been a very unstable peace and this is the longest ceasefire. We must stop the hostilities altogether and bring a new era of peace and hope on the Korean Peninsula,” Park said.
Park thanked all the war veterans for their “noble sacrifice” and vowed to ensure that what they have done for Korea will be “remembered through the decades, through generations.”
Park said she would not put up with any of North Korea’s belligerence that could threaten the lives of Koreans, adding she would do her best to stop the North from “threatening the international society.”
South Korea rose from the ashes of war to become one of the strongest economies and advanced countries in the world.
Park urged North Korea to engage in a dialogue with her government that “will build trust between the North and the South based on the consistent principle and trust and ultimately bring peace in Korea.”
It is ironic, she said, that the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula remains a most heavily guarded area. Park wants a peace park built at the DMZ based on an international treaty.
“It is deeply regrettable that the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains fragile and volatile. Inter-Korean relations have remained deadlocked for far too long. This status quo is neither acceptable nor sustainable,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a message read by Noeleen Heyzer, executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
Ban, a South Korean national, noted that the North’s continued development of nuclear weapons “has become an overriding concern of the international community … and has become a threat to regional and international peace.”
He called for a “meaningful dialogue and engagement,” primarily through the six-party talks to resolve the conflict.
Toward a united Korea
“This 60th anniversary calls on all of us to ensure that the sacrifice of so many who fought in the war was not in vain and that the reunified Korean Peninsula will enjoy democracy, prosperity and human dignity for all, as well as a peace that will last for generations to come,” Ban said.
Filipino soldiers volunteered to fight in the war, with the government forming the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea and sending five combat battalions.
The Philippines was one of the 16 UN member countries that deployed combat forces to the Korean War, and five others provided medical support.
The war broke out on June 25, 1950, with the unexpected attack of the communist North Korea on the South. Days later, the United Nations called on its members to help South Korea.
South Korea reiterated that it will forever be grateful to the countries that came to its aid to defend democracy.
Before the program began, “never forget” ribbons were distributed with cards saying how South Korea “honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”