POLITICS

Canadian vets catch a glimpse of old North Korean enemy during border visit

04/23/2013 07:39 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT
PANMUNJOM, South Korea - The winter-wasted hills of Korea in the spring of 2013 look little different to former chief warrant officer Ellory Faulkner than the war-scorched landscape he left behind nearly six decades ago.

The view from observation post Sang Seung, northeast of Seoul, seemed frozen not only in time, but reality.

Every fold and every crease of the antiseptically named Hill 355 and nearby Hill 227 were vividly seared into Faulker's memory.

You don't easily forget the place where so many people tried so hard to kill you and your men over so many months.

Using his brass-plated wooden cane as a pointer, Faulkner described in precise — often painstaking — detail Tuesday the see-saw battles fought for this ground by the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment in late October 1952.

Faulkner and about three dozen other veterans of the Cold War's first flashpoint stared in awe across the desolate four-kilometre divide which still separates North and South Korea.

"I wouldn't have expected this to be going on all these years later," Faulkner said. "I thought it would be solved. I knew it wasn't an armistice the way we were told. It was just a ceasefire."

From two observation posts and at the uneasy truce village of Panmunjom, the old soldiers caught fleeting glimpses of their former enemy, who these days presents a renewed and, in their estimation, inexplicable threat.

The reclusive regime in Pyongyang has for weeks threatened war against South Korean and U.S. forces over military exercises on its border and a higher level of sanctions imposed by the United Nations after a recent, third nuclear test.

China's top general warned on Monday that a fourth North Korean nuclear weapons test is a possibility in the near future and that should emphasize the need for a new round of diplomacy.

South Korean news agencies, quoting unidentified officials over the weekend, reported the North had moved two short-range missile launchers to its east coast, apparently in readiness for another test.

The potential threat of those rockets is apparently one of the reasons Canada's Conservative government is willing to give a U.S. invitation to participate in ballistic missile defence another look.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney deferred questions about the request to the prime minister and defence minister.

Doug Finney, a Canadian Army artillery signaller during the 1950-53 war, says it is astonishing Pyongyang can't see past the demilitarized line and recognize how good people in the south have it by comparison.

"It amazes me, you know? It's just foolish," Finney said.

There is a surreal, tension-infused quality to the demilitarized zone, where working rice paddies, minefields, pheasants, razor wire, farm families and all troops seem to peacefully co-exist.

Wooden signs that stake out the actual demarcation line, weathered and bleached by over half a century of wear, are close to falling apart, according to the South Korean military. But because they sit in no man's land, no man is about to go out and fix them.

Even some of the observation posts, where fresh-faced South Korean troops greeted the Canadian veterans like long lost brothers, had the tentative air of a tourist attraction where busloads of the curious stare through powerful binoculars into the strange, misty hermit kingdom.

One such fortress stood atop a hill where Harry Marshall once encamped with the guns of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.

The disconnect between his experience and the reality of today seemed incredible, but he took solace in the economic miracle that has grown in at least half of the country.

"I lost a friend over there, a pretty close friend," he said pointing over his shoulder to the far side of the hill.

"I'm pretty proud of the South Koreans and what they've accomplished in 60 years. I figured they accomplished more in 60 years than we have in 25 centuries."

Yet, those ensuing decades have not entirely lightened the shadows of those desperate days.

Repeated Chinese Red Army assaults on Hill 355 on October 23, 1952, were as fresh in Faulker's recollection Tuesday as they were the day they happened.

His platoon had been at the base of a nearby hill, where the enemy rolled grenades down on top of them.

Their position was overrun and 14 men were captured in a vicious assault that Faulkner is convinced was payback for an attack he led on Communist positions three weeks previously.

"There was 115 in my company. The next morning there was 37 of us left who answered roll call," he said, fighting back tears.

"I don't want to sound melodramatic. I had nothing left with to fight in the dark and I laid down among the dead — ours and theirs — around me, and that's why I'm here to talk to you gentlemen today."