BOGOTA, June 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had an emotion-filled meeting with Colombian veterans of the Korean War on Saturday, deeply saluting their life-risking sacrifice to defend the then little-known, faraway nation across the Pacific.
A wave of emotion swept through a Bogota hotel ballroom as tearful veterans spoke of their wartime experiences and how proud they felt to see the war-ravaged nation they shed blood for miraculously rising as one of the world's largest economies.
"The Republic of Korea of today exists because you fought for and staked your lives to defend the far-flung nation in the East that you didn't even know its name well," Lee said during the meeting with surviving veterans and family members of the war dead, referring to South Korea's official name.
"Had it not been for your help, the Republic of Korea could not be defended," he said.
Colombia was the only nation from Central and South America to fight alongside South Korea against Chinese-backed North Korean forces. About 5,300 troops were dispatched halfway around the world to help fight the North's invasion, of which 213 were killed and 567 wounded.
A total of 730 veterans are believed to still be alive.
Lee arrived in Bogota earlier Saturday, becoming the first South Korean president ever to visit the wartime ally. Of the nations that sent combat troops to help defend South Korea, Colombia was the only one that had not been visited by a South Korean president, except the city state of Luxembourg.
"In the name of the people of the Republic of Korea, I want to tell you that we are very grateful and thankful," Lee said. "It is too late for a South Korean president to visit Colombia and say thank you, but I think it is still meaningful that I get to see you around the time of the 62nd anniversary of the (June 25) outbreak of the Korean War."
Lee stressed that South Korea is now defending itself on its own with an attitude of "not pardoning" any provocations by North Korea. With powerful defense capabilities, South Korea is capable of defeating the North in case of war, but its greater goal is to "deter and prevent war and safeguard peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said.
"Our objective for now is get peace to prevail on the Korean Peninsula and realize unification," he said.
Colombian forces -- a battalion-size contingent with a 2,000-ton frigate -- are known for two fierce battles. In one of them, known as the "Operacion Nomada," they captured three high grounds held by Chinese troops in what is now North Korea on Oct. 13, 1951.
In the other battle, dubbed the "Old Baldy," the Colombian contingent fought off a surprise attack by Chinese forces near what is now the inter-Korean border on March 23, 1953. Colombia lost 95 soldiers, with 30 others listed as missing and 97 wounded, while 369 Chinese troops were killed.
Alberto Ruiz Novoa, a 95-year-old veteran, who later served as Colombia's defense minister, said he participated in the Korean War at age 36 and fought in the "Old Baldy" battle, and that he felt his sacrifice has paid off as he watched South Korea's economic rise.
"I am very much proud and satisfied that the valor and sacrifices of Colombian soldiers helped made South Korea what it is today," he said.
Another veteran, 77, known only by his surname, Gomez, said he was only 16 when he was dispatched. Gomez said he never regrets his decision to participate in the war, but tears fell down his face as he spoke of his battlefield experiences.
"This is a very sad and hard memory, but this is not a bad memory," he said.
Gomez said he left South Korea with a sense that the future of the war-torn nation suffering from extreme poverty was uncertain and would be very difficult to rebuild, but watching today's South Korea makes him feel as if he is seeing a miracle.
Earlier in the day, Lee visited a Korean War memorial and paid tribute.
Flanked by Colombia's defense minister, the solemn-faced Lee marked a moment of silence then offered a wreath at a Korean War memorial in Bogota as a military brass band played somber music. As the national anthems of the two countries were played, Lee stared at the bronze plate where the names of the war dead are inscribed.
Lee then shook hands with each of the bereaved family members and surviving veterans who attended the ceremony and accepted their requests to have pictures taken with him. Lee wrote a message in the guest book that read, "We will remember you forever and will never forget you. All of us are grateful."
Another focus of Lee's three-day trip to Colombia is a free trade agreement.
South Korea and Colombia are in the final stages of free trade talks and Lee's trip is expected to provide the negotiations with important momentum, officials have said. That raised speculation the trade talks could be concluded during Lee's trip.
The trade talks are expected to be a key topic for Lee's summit talks Monday with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, along with deepening all-round cooperation, especially in areas such as trade and investment, infrastructure construction and resources development, science and technology.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.