The shooting this summer of a South Korean tourist cast an uncomfortable shadow over the Veterans Affairs Canada delegation that had come to Seoul to mark the 55th anniversary of the Korea Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953.
Park Wang Ja, a 53-year-old housewife from Seoul, was walking on a beach at a tourist area in North Korea when, according to North Korean officials, she strayed into a restricted military area and was shot twice. This was after failing to acknowledge shouts and a warning shot.
The killing, coupled with North Korea’s refusal to allow South Korean authorities to examine the scene, has been a setback for the hope of renewed talks between the two Koreas. The opening of the tourist area was seen as a sign of the north being willing to open up. The tourist area was a boon to the cash-starved communist country hoping to see some of the prosperity now so evident in South Korea.
Tension was further evident outside the Seoul Plaza Hotel where the delegation was staying. The plaza in front of the city hall had been the site of protests over the South Korean government’s recent decision to resume importing beef from the United States following a five-year ban after the mad cow disease scare.
The peaceful protests were enough of a threat that each night the entire lawn of the plaza was encircled by buses containing riot police in black outfits. Club and shields could quickly be retrieved from the buses should the need arise.
The protests had started over the beef but most commentators viewed them as a backlash against the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak, whose coolness to the North Koreans had seen efforts his predecessors had made toward easing north-south tension evaporate.
Such was the news when Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson arrived to lead a 110-person delegation to mark the armistice in the 1950-53 war that cost Canada 516 lives. While South Korea is now a prosperous country with the fourth largest economy in Asia, memories of the war that has never officially ended would be evident throughout the July 7-16 trip.
With Thompson were 36 veterans and their caregivers, parliamentarians, youth delegates and representatives of various veterans’ organizations, including The Royal Canadian Legion. The Korean Veterans Association of Canada was represented by its president Terry Wickens of Elliot Lake, Ont. Dominion Treasurer Michael Cook, a member of Cloverdale Branch in Surrey, B.C., represented the Legion, and Buster Brown of Halifax, a member of the Legion’s Dominion Command Defence Committee, was nominated by the Legion to represent the retired members of the Canadian Forces.
Also along were 12 representatives of Aboriginal and Métis veterans’ organizations who would participate in a special sunrise ceremony at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, known to Canadians during the war as Pusan.
Delegates met for the first time in Vancouver for a dinner and briefing by VAC officials. The next morning they flew by Canadian Forces Airbus to Anchorage, Alaska, and then on to Asia.
It was a route well known to Bob Rose of Belleville, Ont., who served with 426 (Thunderbird) Squadron. “I made 16 crossing, eight round trips,” he said. “We were based in McChord Air Force Base in Washington. We would fly from there to Anchorage and then on to Tokyo for supplies for the Korea troops.”
Arriving at the new Incheon International Airport, delegates saw signs of prosperity and an economy growing faster than the infrastructure needed to support it. Traffic remained congested throughout many of the 26 bridges leading into Seoul.
The pilgrimage’s official events began with a visit to the Republic of Korea National Cemetery in Seoul. Guards from army, navy and air force lined up to greet veterans in the formal part of the ceremony. As an army band played, Thompson was greeted by Ki-Yoon Kwak, sectional chief of the cemetery and given white ceremonial gloves. National anthems were played, and then Thompson placed a wreath and was invited to put a pinch of incense into a ceremonial scent pot.
The entrance way is flanked by giant statues depicting South Korea’s past. It leads into a chamber filled with flowers. From the memorial chamber, delegates emerged to see the vast cemetery that covers the slopes of several adjacent hills overlooking the Han River. The cemetery has 165,000 graves of soldiers, policemen and reserve army who died serving their country.
After viewing the graves, the delegates visited the Korea National War Memorial and Museum. The vast museum covers Korea’s past from several centuries. This is a country that has known conquest many times from Chinese and Japanese imperialist forces. Only a portion of the museum is devoted to telling the story of the 1950-53 conflict.
At a luncheon hosted by Kim Yang, Korea’s minister of patriots and veterans affairs, the delegation was joined by Canada’s ambassador to Korea Ted Lipman. “There is a saying in Korea that a tree with deep roots can sway in the wind,” said Kim in greeting the delegation. “We feel that the friendship between Korea and Canada also has very deep roots.”
In reply, Thompson said, “As we sit down to break bread together, we are reminded that although our two countries are very far apart on the world’s maps, we are very close in so many other important ways. We share a common history and a steadfast commitment to the ideals of peace and freedom. And we proudly believe our history is worth remembering and that our values are worth defending.
“Never was our determination more obvious than when our two great nations stood shoulder to shoulder against the threat of tyranny. The peoples of our two nations defied the greatest odds because our cause was just: to defend our shared values and freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
The challenge to those shared values came in June 1950. Following the end of the Second World War, Japanese forces in Korea had surrendered to the United States-led allies in the south while those in the north surrendered to Russia.
The 38th Parallel was chosen as the arbitrary dividing line. It was meant to last only while U.S. and Russian forces were occupying the country, and it was hoped that Korea would be one united country after the foreigners left. Instead, a communist dictatorship was established in the north while a shaky but democratic government controlled the south.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea’s military forces crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea and soon reached Seoul. The United Nations, which had only been in existence for five years, had to act. Sixteen countries, including Canada, agreed to contribute forces under U.S. command.
An amphibious attack at Incheon, the port serving Seoul and now the site of the international airport, had caught the North Korean forces by surprise. Seoul was liberated in September and the North Koreans retreated. They were chased close to the Chinese border, but then China intervened sending a massive force that drove the UN and South Korean armies back across the 38th Parallel to positions along the Imjin River.
In mid-February 1951, units from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India joined into one Commonwealth force. The commonwealth group became part of a northward push toward the 38th Parallel. In late April 1951, the Chinese and North Koreas struck back in the west and west central sectors. The U.S. troops were forced to withdraw and the Canadians and other commonwealth troops entered the battle helping the U.S. forces move back.
Hostilities continued for two more years, but the battle was stagnated with both sides digging in around the 38th Parallel. Finally the armistice was reached at Panmunjom in July 1953. South Korea never signed the armistice though and so technically it is still at war with the north.
The lifestyle for Korean troops after the ceasefire was glimpsed by the delegation during a visit to the Sang Seung Observation Post north of Seoul. Photographs are forbidden at this post which is considered too sensitive to allow tourists free access.
From this point several of the veterans were able to pinpoint areas where they had patrolled. “It’s an awful country for fighting,” explained Russ Cormier, 76, of London, Ont. He should know. He spent much of his time in Korea within a short distance of the lookout, patrolling with the Royal Canadian Regiment to see what the other side was doing. “We always went out at night. They could see us during the day.”Hubert Lalonde, 77, a member of the Legion’s Chippawa Branch in Niagara Falls, Ont., served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He recalled patrolling along the line. In March 1952, Lalonde and a companion were hit by artillery. “We were covered in dirt but we were all right. I was just about to say that artillery never hits the same place twice when in it came,” he recalled.
“You see this mark near my eye,” he said, pointing to a dark spot. “That is dirt from Korea I have carried around. They said the shrapnel would come out on its own which it did. But that dirt has just stayed there.”
The next day the delegation visited the Canadian Korean War Memorial Garden in Naechon. This is the heart of the Gapyong Valley or as it was called by the Canadians at that time, Kapyong. It was here that one of the most horrific battles of the war occurred. In April 1951, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was nearly overrun as Chinese troops kept coming in waves of human bodies. Finally, the PPCLI officers called artillery fire on the unit’s own position in a last and successful attempt to drive off the enemy. The PPCLI suffered 10 soldiers dead and 23 wounded. For that action the U.S. Presidential Citation was awarded to the 2nd PPCLI and the 3rd Royal Australian Regt.“As we stand here, it’s hard to remember that this was a far different place some 55 years ago. This was a place ravaged by war. A place of terrible human suffering—a place where entire villages were bombed out, and where the survivors carried on their backs what few possessions they had left,” explained Thompson at the garden.
“Amid all this misery our troops were arriving to face an enemy far more familiar with their foreign terrain, far more skilled in scaling these mountains and hillsides. For our Prairie boys arriving here, this truly was a strange and imposing land. And yet each one of them found the strength, the courage and the will to go forward.”
The delegation’s last day around Seoul culminated in the much anticipated visit to Panmunjom, where the ceasefire had been negotiated and where the two sides continue to meet to sort out protocols on everything from tourist visits to humanitarian aid.
The group went to Camp Bonafas, a U.S. compound where U.S. and Korean troops guard the only road between the two Koreas. After a briefing by U.S. soldiers, the delegation was informed that “combat-ready guides” would board the coaches for a tour. The first landmark pointed out was what the guide said Golf Digest magazine called the most dangerous golf course in the world since it is surrounded on three sides by minefields. “Tensions are very, very high at the moment,” the guide told the pilgrims as the group reached the three long one-storey buildings painted blue. Republic of Korea guards stand at one end of each building while North Korean guards are at the other. “Do not wave or gesture toward the North Koreans in any way. No matter what they do,” the group was told. But that was difficult since North Korean civilians were visiting the other side and they gladly waved towards the westerners.
The South Korean soldiers are trained to take a martial arts stance with fists clenched. Though they are as still as statues they are ready to act. One did when one of the Koreans assisting the delegation went to move a chair. The soldier let out a quick, sharp martial arts cry and stuck out his hand flat and vertically to tell the woman not to move any closer. She backed away and the guard returned to his position.
A line running down the centre of the room represents the 38th Parallel. Although members of the tour can cross the line briefly, they are warned not to go anywhere near the door leading to the north end of the compound.
Down the road is another site where the delegation was allowed to visit, but not take photographs. This was Daeseong-dong, or Freedom Village, where Koreans still live and operate viable farms. The residents must have either been there or be the descendants of those who lived there when the demilitarized zone was established. They can sell their crops to either North or South Korea but live under strict conditions. Everyone must be out of the fields and back in the village every night by dark and in their own homes by midnight.
A short distance away is “the bridge of no return.” It was here that prisoners of war were released following the armistice. Prisoners were given a choice. They could go either to North or South Korea, but once they crossed the bridge, they could not return. While many prisoners of the north jumped at the chance for life in South Korea, family ties drove many north as well.
Among those prisoners released was a Canadian, Jim Gunn of Gatineau, Que., and a member of the delegation. As the only returning prisoner of war he was allowed, escorted by U.S. guards, to walk on the bridge and come back. Asked if he remembered crossing the bridge, Gunn was honestly blunt and said he didn’t remember a bridge at all.
Gunn, 73, a private with the RCR was a sniper who was caught by the Chinese while out on patrol, March 2, 1953. “We knew we were going to be caught, so we broke up our rifles and the sites and buried them before they got to us. They found the weapons soon enough but they didn’t know how to put them back together. They would look at us but we would just shrug our shoulders,” said Gunn, putting his arms up as if to indicate he didn’t understand.
Following the visit to Panmunjom, the delegation returned to the airport for a short flight to Busan. It was here that most soldiers arrived by ship and set foot in Korea for the first time.
The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan is 35 acres and contains the remains of 2,300 allied military personnel who fought alongside the South Koreans. Three hundred and seventy-eight graves belong to Canadians.
Here the delegation performed the last ceremonies. The first of which was a native sunrise ceremony. Although performed after sunrise at 8 a.m., it was a less formal ceremony paying tribute to the elements.
Noel Knockwood, 75, of Lake Echo, N.S., who was born on the Indian Brook Reserve in Shubenacadie, N.S., led the ceremony. He served with the 1st Field Regt. of the Royal Regt. of Canadian Artillery, and after the war became a teacher and served as sergeant-at-arms for the Nova Scotia House of Assembly.
Representatives of the National Aboriginal Veterans Association, the First National Veterans of Canada and the National Métis Veterans Association formed a circle and burned tobacco. Knockwood led prayers in Mi’kmaq and English. “We pray to the God that we know. We call God Grandfather/ Grandmother since we can not know what gender God is.”
Knockwood remembered an Aboriginal soldier he served with who was a driver. They had been on leave together when the officer that his friend was driving wanted to return to the front lines. While driving towards the lines allied engineers were blasting to create a new road. The work area wasn’t marked properly and the two drove into a blast that caused a rock slide. The flying debris missed the officer, but killed Knockwood’s friend.
During the remembrance service at the cemetery Thompson said that for “55 years veterans have asked very little of Canada, and very little of us. But in moments of reflection and introspection, they will tell you there is one thing that weighs heavily on their minds. They wonder, will future generations remember them? And more importantly, will future generations help honour their vow to always remember their fallen comrades?
“This morning, they can see the answer for themselves and Canada is truly grateful to everyone who has helped make this cemetery such a lasting gift of remembrance.”
After wreaths were placed by the various representatives, the group walked down to the Canadian section of the cemetery and placed a wreath on the Korean War Monument to the Canadian Fallen. Unveiled in 2002, it features a bronze sculpture of a Canadian soldier holding a Korean child in his arms with another child at his feet. There is an identical monument located in Ottawa.
The original monument was designed by Korean War veteran Vince Courtenay and sculpted by Korean artist Yoo Young-mun. Both the original and the one in Ottawa list the names of all 516 Canadians who died in the Korean War. Inscribed are the words “We will never forget you brave sons of Canada.”
Thompson placed a wreath at the Korean monument and then listened to a performance by the children’s choir from the Suk-Po Elementary School in Busan. The youngsters sang songs about Canadian valour in Korea, and played their traditional instruments.
Despite the tension on the 38th Parallel, one can still see that this is a country that has prospered greatly in recent decades. From a nation in ruins, South Korea is now one of the world’s top 10 exporters and a member of both the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation and the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.
The delegation’s youth ambassador, Kathleen O’Brien of Yellowknife, N.W.T., said the trip had really made an impression. “I was at Vimy with my school, but there was no one there who had actually fought in the First World War. This trip is so real and the men who fought in it are with us,” said the high school student who had been selected by the Encounters With Canada youth program. “I think I’d like to find some kind of work that would bring me back.”
The Legion’s Mike Cook said, “I’ve found the trip very enlightening, but what amazes me is the hospitality and the appreciation the Korean people have towards the Canadians.”
“I think the trip is an eye-opener. You see the cities and the roads where there was nothing,” added Cormier. “What impresses me the most is to see the children with smiling faces. When I was here last they were not smiling. They were cold and starving. Now they are smiling and don’t seem to have a care in the world. I can’t help feeling that this is what we did.”
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