The shadow of two previous brutal wars – and the potential consequences of one raging in Eastern Europe – hung over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrived in Japan on Thursday for the opening of the G7 leaders’ summit.
The day began in South Korea with a commemoration and a steep hike along a newly constructed trail in Kapyeong, scene of the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951, the first desperate fight involving Canadian soldiers in the Korean War.
The day ended in Hiroshima, Japan, the city annihilated by an atomic bomb in August 1945 in the world’s first use of a tactical nuclear weapon by the United States.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida deliberately chose his hometown as the venue for the Group of Seven leaders’ meeting to highlight the risk the world faces today from a nuclear confrontation. Russia has repeatedly threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in its war in Ukraine.
Trudeau’s well-scripted visit to Kapyeong, about 50 kilometers northwest of Seoul, saw him blaze a so-called Peace Trail on the rugged landscape of the former battlefield. The hiking trail connects former Canadian positions and ends at the top of Hill 677, which was the strategic position Chinese troops attempted to cross on their way to take Seoul, the South Korean capital.
The offensive was stopped by the Commonwealth Brigade, made up of Canadian and Australian troops, supported by American tanks.
“This is a very important battle at a key time in the war,” said Andrew Burtch, historian at the Canadian War Museum. “Had it gone wrong, it could have meant very different outcomes for South Korea and that’s one of the reasons it’s remembered so much in terms of its wider significance to history. Canadian military.”
Over 500 Canadians killed in Korean War
The Prime Minister’s visit on Thursday is significant because, unlike European battlefields, few Canadian politicians have set foot on Korean soil. Throughout the Korean War, 516 Canadians lost their lives, including 10 at Kapyong.
“It’s a stretch of ground that hasn’t been as well documented, perhaps as other battles – admittedly costlier battles in World Wars I and II, but it still resonated long after the guns have stopped firing,” Burtch said.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, a fact that also makes Trudeau’s brief stint on the trail significant. He participated in a brief wreath laying ceremony before hiking the trail to the summit where he mingled with students from a Canadian private school, CMIS Canada.
Reminders of another, more devastating war were evident when Trudeau landed in Hiroshima, where nuclear disarmament is almost considered an article of faith, especially for Japan’s prime minister.
“Kishida walks a fine line,” said Chris Johnstone, a Japan expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“He recognizes the need for the nuclear umbrella, Japan’s dependence on extended US deterrence; that it’s more vital than ever, frankly, in the current security environment, but he still supports this vision, if you will, of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Many survivors of the atomic bombing have told Japanese media that they hope leaders in Western democracies will change their perception of nuclear weapons by stepping on the ground where they were used.
Roland Paris, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the world is in a precarious state as many arms control agreements that kept the potential use of nuclear weapons in check have disappeared.
“A lot of these mechanisms that have helped stabilize the nuclear world since the Cold War, during the Cold War, these mechanisms eroded,” Paris said.
“These nuclear arms control agreements have fallen through. There has been more and more nuclear rattling.
“I think the fact that this summit is being held in Hiroshima will have great symbolic significance.”
On the contrary, Paris said, the G7 summit could provide impetus to renegotiate some of those agreements that have been abandoned.
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