2013

Korea and Canada: Old Friends

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend” whether you are new on the block or a well-meaning nation surrounded by ambitious rulers. This reminder has been passed on to many of us by wise mothers through the ages, and Korea understands its implications.

A young Korean man from Victoria, BC commented to me recently as he described the affinity of Koreans towards Canada that, “All of the names of the Canadians who fought in the Korean War are in the [National] museum. Koreans pray for them.”

His friendly yet serious comments compelled me to do some research. As a Canadian who has never travelled to Korea, it had not occurred to me that foreign soldiers would be acknowledged so publicly in Korea, well, or anywhere. It is true that a monument built by the Korean-Canadian community, the first one in Western Canada, exists to recognize 36 soldiers from British Columbia who died in the Korean War. But is this not a different matter – one of recognizing Canadian soldiers in Canada? I set out to discover more about this recognition, and honour, of being recognized.

It turns out that there are at least three memorial displays in Korea which specifically identify Canadian soldiers who fought and died in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, and who took part in the peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations in the years following. The displays are located in the Korea National War Memorial and Museum in Seoul, in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, formerly Pusan, and in the Canadian War Memorial Garden in Kapyong, now known as Gapyeong-gun.DSC02271

Why do these memorials exist? Some background to the Korean War is helpful. The monument in the Memorial Garden summarizes this well. “Between 1950 and 1953, Canada participated in the Korean War as part of a United Nations multinational force to protect South Korea from invasion by North Korea. When considered in proportion to the population of the country, Canada’s army, navy and air force formed one of the larger contingents of the United Nations forces.” According to several sources, over 27,000 Canadians participated in all aspects of the war and ceasefire with 516 Canadian casualties and 1255 wounded.

What should we know about the memorials? The Canadian Tablet is housed in the Corridor of Honour within the Korea National War Memorial and Museum. On the tablet are inscribed the names of those 516 Canadians who died fulfilling their duties as part of the United Nations Forces. The museum is part of a huge endeavor to reflect Korean military history, including the Korean War, its background, the progression of the war and how a truce was eventually established.

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One visitor to this “largest landmark of its kind” in May 2013 explained, “[It was] the highlight of my trip in Seoul. I was deeply moved and impressed with what I saw in the museum. Worth your time.” This favourable sentiment is echoed everywhere in reviews on the Internet. Not only that, it has no entrance fees!

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery and Peace Park was created as the resting place for the thousands from the UN forces who died “with men of other countries fighting to uphold the ideals of the United Nations” during the Korean War. 378 Canadians were buried there. The Korean government granted this land to the United Nations as a permanent tribute to all of the involved forces.  Canada has a replica of a monument that stands in this cemetery, located in Ottawa.

The final display is located in Gapyeong-gun, an hour outside of Seoul.  Three monuments have been built at this site: a stone cairn, a stone tablet and a larger monument reflecting the shape of the Canadian flag. The cairn commemorates the Canadian Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the tablet lists the units of Canadian Forces which participated in the Korean War, and the largest commemorates the ‘Battle of Kapyong’ fought in that area.

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Honourable Steven Blaney, Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, recently expressed that the construction of such memorials is not only important, but crucial, because, “this is how our great countries will be forever united. Forever connected.”  Shared, and remembered, history builds friendships and lays the groundwork for trust.

2013 is the Year of Korea in Canada. As the Prime Minister of Canada said recently, “Canada and Korea enjoy excellent relations based on 50 years of diplomatic engagement, close personal ties and an important commercial relationship.”  This is deep recognition for Canada’s longtime, and old, friend, the Republic of Korea. It may take a long time to grow an old friend, but once established, they are very worthwhile to have.

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