With about 20 Canadian veterans on hand, Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked Remembrance Day overseas at a monument to the Korean War, a three-year conflict that he said was among the toughest wars in Canadian history.
He laid a wreath in front of the Canadian plaque at the Gallery of the Monuments of Those Killed in Action in memory of the pivotal role Canadian troops played in ending the war.
“Today, we honour and remember those members of the Canadian Forces who fought in one of the toughest wars in our history, to defend South Korea against an oppressive communist invader,” Mr. Harper said in written remarks.
“Today, I also want to pay tribute to our brave men and women in uniform who continue the proud tradition of defending peace and freedom around the globe in places such as Afghanistan and Haiti.”
Mr. Harper, spending his first Remembrance Day abroad, is in Seoul for a two-day G20 summit. Before the meetings, Mr. Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and South Korean officials attended ceremonies at a Korean War Memorial.
Seated in the front row, veteran Peter Seierson, 80, of Courteney, B.C. said he was pleased to see more attention being paid to the Korean War, but he said most Canadians are unaware of what happened here.
“I think, for the most part, they're still not cognizant,” he said at the centre of the large concrete memorial, an open space lined by grey pillars and flags in front of a large Korean War museum.
This is the sixth time Mr. Seierson has returned to Korea.
“I just love their people,” he said.
The fighting ran from 1950 to 1953 at the height of the Cold War, with a United Nations supporting the South after it was invaded by better-armed communists in the Soviet and Chinese-backed North.
The civil war – which was never formally ended following the ceasefire – could have widened into a global conflict. There were concerns, including from Canadians at the time, that the tactics and rhetoric of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur would trigger a third world war after China intervened on behalf of the North.
Canada contributed about 22,000 soldiers, as well as air and naval support. More than 516 Canadians died in the Korean War. Throughout the 60th anniversary, the Korean government has posted videos and posters across the country that single out Canada's contribution.
Yet Canada joined the UN force only after pressure from the Americans. Initially, Canada pledged just three destroyers and an air-transport squadron. Opposition parties also pressured prime minister Louis St. Laurent to expand Canada's contribution.
The question hanging over the Remembrance Day event is when Mr. Harper will break his silence after apparently acceding to U.S. pressure to extend Canada's commitment in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister has yet to comment on a statement by Defence Minister Peter MacKay that Ottawa is “considering” leaving troops in Afghanistan beyond the planned 2011 pullout date to help train the Afghan army. Mr. MacKay made the remark on Sunday and it was confirmed this week by Mr. Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas.
Critics complain that leaving troops in Afghanistan, even in a training capacity, would be a reversal of statements made by Mr. Harper as recently as this year ruling out any kind of Canadian military presence in the country beyond 2011.
Yet Mr. Harper has been quiet on the issue.
The Prime Minister did not take any questions from the media at a Winnipeg event on Tuesday, even though it was to announce a cross-Canada listening tour before the 2011 budget.