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70 years after start of Korean War, peace on Korean Peninsula remains elusive

June 25 marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War's start. South Korean President Moon Jae-in had hoped peace efforts over the past two years would have brought the two Koreas closer, perhaps enough to produce a treaty formally ending the war. But talks are stalled, and North Korea has returned to harsh criticism and threats against its neighbor. Special correspondent Bruce Harrison reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hopes for peace are stalled. Seventy years to the day after the start of the Korean War, the continent remains divided.

    Despite efforts by the South to ease tensions, in recent weeks, the North has returned to an aggressive posture.

    Special correspondent Bruce Harrison has our report from Seoul.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Under the cover of night, activists in South Korea released large balloons into the sky, hoping the winds take them north across the demilitarized zone.

    This activist exclaims, it's their 20th balloon launch. The heavy payloads bundled beneath the balloons have infuriated North Korea.

    North Korean defector Park Sang Hak is the head of Fighters For Free North Korea. He's agreed to meet in a park. He shows off the leaflets he attaches to the balloons. They call North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a devil who had his own brother killed.

  • Park Sang Hak (through translator):

    The people in North Korea don't know about this. And I want them to know. They think of Kim Jong-un as a god, and they look up to him like some sort of deity. If they know the truth about him, then they won't think he's a god, and that's Kim's biggest fear.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Park says the truth, as he sees it, will eventually break Kim's grasp on power.

    Later that same day, Park's group launched another round of balloons. The South Korean government now plans to introduce a law that would punish the activists, in a move widely seen is trying to prolong diplomacy with the North.

    North Korea has lashed out at Seoul for not stopping the propaganda launches sooner. Pyongyang started by severing all communications with the South, and then, in a very dramatic move, blew up an office building just north of the demilitarized zone the two sides used for talks.

    Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, also threatened to use North Korea's military, though North Korea's state media has since reported leader Kim will be holding off any military action.

    Under President Moon Jae-in's peace initiatives, South Koreans had heard little criticism of Seoul from North Korea over the past two years. And people had even discussed the possibility of leader Kim Jong-un traveling down this road in a motorcade after President Moon Jae-in had invited him here.

    That now seems like a distant possibility. Special adviser to the president Chung-In Moon says the leaflets may have been a step too far for Pyongyang, as Kim struggles domestically.

  • Chung-In Moon:

    North Korea could have become very angry, because these kinds of things are happening when North Korea is facing the fear of coronavirus, as well as economic difficulties.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    The special adviser also suspects Kim is frustrated after multiple summits with President Moon and U.S. President Trump that haven't led to eased economic sanctions.

    Kim met Trump in Hanoi last year to cut a deal: He'd ease up on his nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Talks collapsed after North Korea offered to dismantle part of its nuclear weapons complex, but Washington wanted Pyongyang to dismantle all of it. North Korean negotiators didn't budge.

    A new book by Trump's former National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests, a deal on disarmament was never possible. Bolton writes that Trump put U.S. interests at risk for a historic photo-op with Kim Jong-un.

    He claims, President Moon prioritized improving ties with the North, but discounted any serious strategy. South Korea has responded that Bolton's accounts are inaccurate and distort reality.

    U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris says he hasn't discussed the book with South Korea, and its alliance with the U.S. is stronger than ever.

  • Ambassador Harry Harris:

    And it's important that we celebrate together our achievements over the past 70 years and that we honor the sacrifice of the Koreans, the Americans, and the forces from the other sending states for their sacrifices during the Korean War.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    And across the country this week, ceremonies have been held to remember the sacrifices. For some who served in the war, there's still bitterness.

  • Kim Suk Hwan (through translator):

    All these provocations from North Korea over 70 years, we can't solve this by just talking. What did we get out of the U.S. president holding a summit with the North? This shows that they are still a bunch of liars and savages.

  • Bruce Harrison:

    Kim is among South Korea Korean War veterans participating in the Sae Eden Church's June 25 veterans ceremony.

    Every year, the church hosts Korean War veterans from all over the world to thank them for their service and remember those who died in the conflict. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented foreign veterans from traveling this year, including American, Canadian, Filipino and Thai veterans.

    But they're still on stage, streaming live into the event with family and friends. Retired and active members of the military remembered the fallen and sent in video messages expressing their gratitude.

    The atmosphere here is one of hope, despite the war that continues to divide a nation and a people.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Bruce Harrison in Seoul.

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