When is a war not a war? For the Korean War, the answer is not always clear. This year, 2013, marks the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire of a war that not everyone describes that way. It had ambiguous beginnings, more than 20 participating countries, and still no formal end. But some things are evident. This year, Historica Canada is commemorating this sometimes-forgotten but still-resonant period of our recent history, and Canada’s role therein. Our country sent more than 25,000 members of our military to the Korean “theatre.” More than 500 Canadians died, and another 32 became prisoners of war. For the United States, more than 33,000 members of their military died in combat, along with thousands of others dead or unaccounted for.
Yet even at the height of conflict, US president Harry S. Truman referred to it as a “police action.” This was despite the fact that his country had the largest presence of any of the coalition that joined South Korea against the Communist regime of North Korea and its supporters.
Before 1945, the Korean peninsula was for 40 years part of Japan’s empire. Following Japan’s defeat, Soviet forces moved into the north half of the Korean peninsula, and American forces settled in the south. After the United Nations created a commission to oversee elections, a vote was scheduled in 1948. But only the south was allowed a free vote, so on 15 August, the democratic Republic of Korea (South) was established, along with the separate Communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North). Over the next year, the Soviets and Americans withdrew uniformed forces while leaving “advisers” in place. The result, rather than peace, was civil war. For its part, North Korea had the backing of both the new Communist government of China and that of the Soviet Union.
North Korean forces invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The UN Security Council asked members to help South Korea, and more than 20 nations responded. At the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951, Canadian forces held their position against fierce enemy attacks. In appreciation, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry received the United States Presidential Unit Citation. Other awards won by Canadians during the Korean conflict included nine Distinguished Service Orders, 33 Military Crosses, eight Distinguished Conduct Medals and more than 50 Military Medals. Members of the navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force also played important roles in the overall conflict, and more than 5,000 Canadian women were recruited for service.
Long before the 1953 armistice, there were attempts to end the fighting. In 1951, Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, and Kim Il-Sung, his North Korean counterpart, rejected pressure to make peace because each believed they could defeat the other. Two more years of fighting continued before a ceasefire agreement that included the establishment of boundaries and the release of prisoners of war. Even after fighting ended 27 July 1953, Canadian troops served in the area until August 1957. Some of their stories from 1950–57 are vividly described at www.thememoryproject.com. Those interviewed include army veterans Sam Carr, André Therrien, and Frank Smyth; Claude LaFrance of the RCAF; and navy veteran Peter Fane.
Today, the Korean conflict stands as the first example of a “limited” war in the 20th century. It marked the initial test of the United Nations’ collective security principle. Formally, North and South Korea are still at war — as we are reminded by recent threats by North Korea. For Canada, the price of engagement included the loss of lives and others wounded, along with the financial expense of prosecuting a war. It showed that the country was prepared to support causes it believed were right — and provided the basis for the Korean community of Canadians today, as well as the strong friendship between Canada and South Korea. For better along with worse, the war that not everyone describes that way continues to have impact.