Security in the Korean Peninsula: 70 Years After the Start of the Korean War

(Disponible en français : Sécurité dans la péninsule coréenne : 70 ans après le début de la guerre de Corée)

In June 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. On the 70th anniversary of the start of that conflict, the Korean Peninsula remains one of the world’s most volatile regions.

This HillNote provides an overview of the Korean War and Canada’s role in it. It then summarizes the current security situation in the Korean Peninsula. The HillNote examines Canada’s contributions to security in the region, and comments on that region’s relevance for the country. It concludes by mentioning some of the ways that the Korean War is remembered in Canada.

The Korean War

After the Second World War, the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel. North of this line, a communist regime – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea – was established with the support of the Soviet Union. South of this line, the Republic of Korea – or South Korea – was established with the support of the United States.

Following the 1950 invasion, the United Nations (UN) Security Council created a unified UN military command led by the United States. The goal was to assist South Korea in repelling North Korean forces, which were supported by Chinese forces beginning in October 1950. Active hostilities in the Korean War ended with an armistice – not a peace treaty – on 27 July 1953, and the Korean Peninsula was divided along a demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Map of the Korean Peninsula

Map illustrating North Korea with its capital city of Pyongyang, and South Korea with its capital city of Seoul, as well as the city of Busan in the South East. The demilitarized zone is identified along the border between the two countries. The city of Panmunjom is situated within the demilitarized zone at its western end.

Map prepared by the Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2020, using data from Natural Earth, 1:10m Cultural Vectors and 1:10m Physical Vectors, version 4.1.0. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS Pro, version 2.5.0.

Canada’s Role in the War

The Government of Canada participated in the efforts of the UN military command, contributing military forces, as well as funds for development and reconstruction efforts in South Korea. Canada’s involvement in the Korean War was motivated by several factors, including its membership in the UN, and its support for both collective security and the United States in the context of the Cold War.

According to Veterans Affairs Canada, from 1950 to 1953, more than 26,000 Canadians served in the Korean War. A total of 516 Canadians lost their lives, many of whom are buried at the UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea.

One of Canada’s significant military engagements was the battle of Kapyong in 1951, in which a Canadian force helped stop an advance on Seoul. As well, Canadian forces repeatedly fought to defend “Hill 355,” which occupied a strategic location near key supply lines leading to Seoul.

Photo: Two Canadian soldiers

Two Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22e Régiment in a front-line position in Korea, 1952.
Source: Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

In 1953, Canada’s then Secretary of State for External Affairs – Lester B. Pearson – considered the armistice a “first step” on the road to “political settlement and reconstruction in a free, democratic and united Korea.” However, this outcome has yet to occur.

The Region’s Current Security Situation

The 1953 armistice did not lead to a normalized relationship between North Korea and South Korea. The Korean Peninsula remains highly militarized, and resumed hostilities could quickly cause substantial civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis.

North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and has made the security situation on the Korean Peninsula a global concern. North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 after withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with its most recent test occurring in 2017.

Despite a series of summits and negotiations in 2018 and 2019 between the South Korean and North Korean leaders, and between North Korea’s leader and the U.S. president, few issues have been resolved. The potential for conflict remains. As recently as 16 June 2020, North Korea reportedly destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office near the DMZ, and threatened to return its military forces to areas that had been demilitarized.

On 11 June 2020, North Korea’s foreign minister claimed that the prospect for peace on the Korean Peninsula “has faded away into a dark nightmare,” and that his country would seek to expand its nuclear weapons capabilities. Estimates from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute suggest that North Korea currently has between 30 and 40 nuclear weapons.

Canada’s Current Contribution to Security in the Korean Peninsula

The Korean War has not officially ended, nor has Canada’s involvement in the Korean Peninsula. According to Global Affairs Canada (GAC), Canada maintains an “enduring commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” The country uses diplomatic, economic and military approaches in meeting this commitment.

Concerning diplomacy, in 2016, a delegation from GAC visited North Korea and urged that country’s government to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Talks were also held in Ottawa in 2018. In January of that year, Canada and the United States co-hosted a summit in Vancouver at which more than 20 foreign ministers discussed ways to implement and enforce UN sanctions against North Korea that were introduced in 2006 and strengthened in 2017.

Regarding economic approaches, Canada incorporated UN sanctions against North Korea into legislation in 2006, and imposed additional sanctions in 2011.

From a military perspective, as of March 2020, 15 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel were posted to UN Command Korea in South Korea, with some of them serving in the DMZ. According to the Department of National Defence, their tasks are to “formalize relationships, enforce the 1953 Korean Armistice agreement, [and] capture and share information.” From May 2018 to June 2019, Canadian Lieutenant-General Wayne Eyre served as Deputy Commander of UN Command Korea, the first non-U.S. officer to hold that position.

Moreover, since May 2018, the CAF has contributed to multinational efforts to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea by periodically deploying naval frigates and surveillance aircraft. In May 2020, the next planned deployment was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: A Royal Canadian Navy frigate and a Royal Canadian Airforce surveillance aircraft

A Royal Canadian Navy frigate – the HMCS Ottawa – and a Royal Canadian Airforce surveillance aircraft participate in Operation NEON, the multinational effort to enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea, October 2019.
Source: Department of National Defence, Canadian Armed Forces Combat Camera

The Region’s Relevance for Canada

In a 2017 foreign policy statement, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said that Canada supports a “rules-based international order,” opposes the violation of sovereign borders, and advocates for the peaceful resolution of disputes. She also stated that Canada views North Korea’s dictatorship as a “clear strategic threat to the liberal democratic world, including Canada.”

Renewed conflict between North Korea and South Korea could expand to include other countries. For example, the United States has a mutual defence treaty with South Korea, and would assume operational control of the latter’s army in wartime. As well, China has a mutual defence treaty with North Korea, although observers have questioned China’s commitment to coming to that country’s defence.

The long-range ballistic missile that North Korea tested in 2017 could reach targets in Canada and the United States. In September 2017, the Canadian Deputy Commander of the North American Aerospace Defence Command told the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence that, because Canada does not participate in the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence system, the United States would not necessarily shoot down a North Korean missile targeting Canada.

Canada’s relationship with South Korea has grown since the 1950s. In 2019, that country was Canada’s seventh-largest merchandise trading partner and is its only bilateral free trade agreement partner in the Asia-Pacific region. GAC estimates that about 27,000 Canadians reside in South Korea.

As well, as indicated in an April 2019 press release from the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office, Canada’s role in maintaining peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula contributes to strengthening the country’s relationship with Japan. North Korea has reportedly threatened to launch a ballistic missile against Japan.

Canada Remembers and Is Remembered

Since 2013, Canada has marked Korean War Veterans Day on 27 July. The names of the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives are inscribed in the Korean War Book of Remembrance in the Memorial Chamber at the Parliament of Canada.

Canada’s former ambassador to North Korea and South Korea – Marius Grinius – stated the following in a 2018 article in The Globe and Mail: “Ask any Canadian Korean War veteran. […] Seeing what a vibrant democracy South Korea is, they will tell you that all of their sacrifices, including those of their brothers in arms who died, were not in vain. They would also expect future generations of Canadians to help safeguard South Korea’s hard-won freedom.”

In a recent gesture of gratitude, the Government of South Korea donated face masks to Canadian veterans of the Korean War to help protect them from COVID-19.

Additional Resources

Serge Bernier, “La guerre froide et l’intervention canadienne en Corée,” Cap-aux-Diamants : La revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 84, Winter 2006 [in French].

Réjean Boudreau, “Corée du Nord : une crise sur plusieurs fronts,” La Presse, 24 September 2017 [in French].

Greg Donaghy, “Diplomacy of Constraint Revisited: Canada and the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency, 1950-55,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2014.

Gian Gentile et al., Four Problems on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea’s Expanding Nuclear Capabilities Drive a Complex Set of Problems, RAND Corporation, 2019.

House of Commons, Debates, 2nd Session, 21st Parliament, 30 June 1950, p. 1163 (Address by The Right Honourable Louis St-Laurent, Prime Minister: External Affairs – Situation in Korea – Canada’s Part in Collective Action Under United Nations)

Denis Stairs, “Canada and the Korean War: Fifty Years On,” Canadian Military History, Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 49–60.

Nathan VanderKlippe, “At the Korean DMZ, Canadians watch wearily and hope for peace,” The Globe and Mail, 10 February 2018 (Note: Parliamentary network users can access the article here).

Author: Ariel Shapiro, Library of Parliament