SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — They had come from 14 countries, their lives and loves somehow fated to end up in South Korea. Many wore a U.S. military uniform. And it was here, in Asia, that they became citizens of the United States in the presence of their president.
President Barack Obama attended a naturalization ceremony Friday at the National War Memorial which honors the dead from the Korean War. In one place, Obama remembered fallen Americans and welcomed new ones.
"Thirteen of you made the profound decision to put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own," he told the group. "Seven of you married an American soldier, and as a military spouse, that means you've been serving our country, too."
Obama took the opportunity to argue his case for overhauling the nation's immigration laws. "If we want to keep attracting the best and the brightest, the smartest and the most selfless the world has to offer, then we have to keep this in mind: the value of our immigrants to our way of life," he said. "That's why I'm going to keep on pushing to get this done this year, so that others like the young men and women here have the opportunity to join our American family and serve our great nation."
He then placed a wreath inside the memorial's granite gallery beneath a copper plaque that bore the names of American dead. An Army bugler played taps.
Back during the Korean War a U.S. Marine discovered nine ancient Korean seals and kept them as souvenirs. On Friday, Obama brought them back and presented them to South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a formal ceremony that is serving as a foundation for the future return of cultural artifacts.
"These are historic seals that were part of the monarchy here in Korea," Obama said. "And during the Korean War, a Marine from the United States found them and took them back as mementos to the United States. I don't think he fully appreciated the historic significance of them."
Obama said that after the Korean war veteran's death, his widow discovered their importance. "She graciously recognized that they appropriately belonged here in Korea," he said. "This is a symbol, hopefully, of the respect that we have for Korean culture and our friendship."
Park thanked Obama and the American people for the gesture. "It's very significant that we were able to return home these very historic and precious artifacts," she said. She added: "And I believe the event can further catalyze collaboration in terms and with regard to cultural heritage
As South Korea continued to mourn the tragedy of the sunken Sewol ferry, Obama offered condolences from the American people with a U.S. flag that flew above the White House on April 16, the day the boat capsized. More than 300 of its passengers, most of them high school students, are feared dead.
In remembrance of those who died, the United States also presented a magnolia tree from the White House's South Lawn to the Danwon High School where many of the students attended.
Obama said offering the flag to South Korea followed the U.S. tradition of presenting a flag to the relatives of fallen military service members.
"It reflects our deep condolences, but also our solidarity with you during this difficult time, and our great pride in calling you an ally and a friend," he said.
The magnolia tree has special significance at the White House. President Andrew Jackson introduced the tree to the White House in memory of his deceased wife, Rachel. From 1928 to 1988 the $20 bill depicted the Jackson Magnolia.
"These magnolia trees have stood for more than a century and they represent in our country beauty, and with every spring, renewal, the same qualities embodies by all those students," Obama said.