Celebrating America's Veterans Day, President Barack Obama on Thursday saluted the bravery of U.S. troops who defended South Korea during its war with North Korea and condemned the communist north for continuing on a course that he says deepens its isolation from the rest of the world along with the poverty of its people.
Speaking at an Army garrison in a country where the U.S. keeps a presence of more than 28,000 troops, Obama said North Korea knows the path to prosperity and should take it.
"Because the Korean War ended where it began geographically, some used the phrase 'Die for a Tie' to describe the sacrifice of those who fought here," Obama said. "But as we look around at this thriving democracy and its grateful, hopeful citizens, one thing is clear: This was no tie. This was a victory.
"It was a victory then, and it is a victory today," the president said.
Obama said the Korean peninsula provides the world's clearest contrast between a society that is open and one that is closed, between a dynamic, growing nation like South Korea and a North Korea "that would rather starve its people"
"It's a contrast so stark you can see it from space, as the brilliant lights of Seoul give way to utter darkness in the north," he said, adding that it is a direct result of the path chosen by the reclusive, communist north.
Obama said the U.S. "will never waver" in its commitment to South Korea's security and that North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation and less security. He urged Pyongyang to take another path, a road that he said will offer its people growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty.
The commander in chief spoke inside a packed gymnasium, addressing a uniformed audience of service members from the different branches of the U.S. military. They surrounded him from all sides, and many snapped photos as he spoke.
Obama also spoke to the broader meaning of Veterans Day.
"On this day, we honor every man and woman who has ever worn the uniform of the United States of America. We salute fallen heroes, and keep in our prayers those who are still in harm's way — like the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We recall acts of uncommon bravery and selflessness, but we also remember that honoring those who've served is about more than the words we say on Veterans' Day or Memorial Day. It's about how we treat our veterans every single day of the year. It's about making sure they have the care they need and the benefits they have earned. It's about serving all of you as well as you've served the United States of America."
He said that's why he's has asked for increased budgets for the Veterans Administration.
"So I want all of you to know that when you come home, your country will be there be for you. That is the commitment I make as your Commander-in-Chief," he said. "That is the sacred trust between the United States of America and all who defend its ideals.
"It's a trust that's been forged in places far from our shores: from the beaches of Europe to the jungles of Vietnam; from the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to the peninsula where we stand today."
After the speech, Obama laid a wreath at a war memorial.
Regarding the Korean Peninsula, Obama said the north's circumstances were not "an accident of history" but a direct result of the path it has chosen — "a path of confrontation and provocation" that he said included its relentless pursuit of the nuclear weapons and the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.
"In the wake of this aggression, Pyongyang should not be mistaken: the United States will never waver in our commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea," the president said. "The alliance between our two nations has never been stronger, and along the with the rest of the world, we have made it clear that North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation and less security."
Obama said North Korea has another path available to it.
"If they choose to fulfill their international obligations and commitments to the international community, they will have the chance to offer their people lives of growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty — a future of greater security and greater respect; a future that includes the prosperity and opportunity available to citizens on this end of the Korean peninsula," he said.