In June 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. Almost 70 years after an armistice was signed and the fighting in that conflict ended, 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, as well as the current security situation on the Korean Peninsula. It also examines Canada’s contributions to security in the region, and mentions 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 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 battalion 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.
Private A.F. Proulx and Private J.M. Aubin, Canadian soldiers from the Royal 22e Régiment, in a front-line position in Korea, 1952. Photographer: J.R. Marwick.
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 normalize relations between North Korea and South Korea. The Korean Peninsula remains highly militarized, and the resumption of hostilities could quickly cause substantial civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis.
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles violates 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 then U.S. president, few issues have been resolved.
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 40 and 50 nuclear weapons. Moreover, at a parade in October 2020, the country revealed its largest-ever intercontinental ballistic missile.
Canada’s Current Contribution to Security on the Korean Peninsula
The Korean War has not officially ended, and neither 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 2018, 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 serving in the DMZ. 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. Following his service in Korea, he wrote:
“The Korean War provides a clear analogy to the purpose of the deployments for the contemporary Canadian soldier. We want our troops to be able to return to a distant country 30, 40, or 50 years hence as veterans themselves, able to proudly say that they were part of making it a better place.”
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 as part of Operation NEON. In May 2021, this operation was extended until 2023.
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 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 Defense 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 attempt to shoot down a North Korean missile targeting Canada.
Canada’s relationship with South Korea has grown since the 1950s. In 2020, 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 a May 2021 backgrounder from the office of Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Canada’s role in maintaining peace and stability on 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 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives are inscribed in the Korean War Book of Remembrance in the Memorial Chamber at the Parliament of Canada. In June 2021, the Canadian and South Korean militaries signed an agreement to find and identify the remains of the 16 Canadian soldiers who were declared missing during the Korean War.
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 gesture of gratitude, in the spring of 2020, the Government of South Korea donated face masks to Canadian veterans of the Korean War to help protect them from COVID-19.
Serge Bernier, “La guerre froide et l’intervention canadienne en Corée, ” Cap-aux-Diamants : La revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 84, Winter 2006.
Réjean Boudreau, “Corée du Nord : une crise sur plusieurs fronts,” La Presse, 24 September 2017.
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.
James Trottier, “The Biden Administration’s North Korea Policy: A New Direction or Back to the Future?”, Canadian Global Affairs Institute, June 2021.
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
Categories: International affairs and defence