Trent Ernst, Editor
2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice, which was signed July 27, 1953.
The Korean War was the third bloodiest conflict, after World War One and World War Two, but is often considered the forgotten war, something that the government of Canada is trying to rectify.
2013 also marks the 50th anniversary of the start of diplomatic relations between Canada and South Korea.
During the Korean War, 516 Canadians died and 1,448 were wounded. The war was not as well known in North America as World War Two, which ended five years before, nor as soundly protested as the Vietnam War, which Canada did not participate in.
The war began on June 25, 1950, when 135,000 North Korean People’s Army troops came south through pre-dawn darkness and the start of a monsoon season, making their way for Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea.
Known as the Land of the Morning Calm, Korea was about to become a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union’s cold war posturing. It was a messy, political bit of world-building by both super powers.
While the war was Canada’s third most deadly conflict, only a handful of Canadians died in comparison to the six million Koreans—both military and civilian—who died in the conflict.
The American army, who supplied the largest contingent to the United Nations Command, saw 54,236 soldiers die in the war, with 103,284 wounded. 8,177 are still listed as missing in action.
The total number of UN Forces (including South Korea) killed, wounded or missing was 996,937.
ORIGINS OF THE WAR
The Korean War has its roots in the Second World War, which ended only a few years earlier. After the end of hostilities in Europe, focus shifted to the Pacific theatre, where the US enlisted the aid of the Soviet Union against Japan.
Japan surrendered after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Soviet army pushed through Manchuria (now Northern China) and into Korea, which had been held by Japan since 1910. During World War II, China backed Korean independence fighters. Just as China was divided between Nationalists and Communists, there were two factions of Korean independence fighters, each backed by these two factions.
When Japan surrendered, the rest of the world did not recognize Japanese rule in Korea. While it was proclaimed that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent,” that didn’t happen.
The Soviet army marched into Korea in August of 1945, halting on the 38th parallel as agreed to, while the Americans, much more slowly, occupied South Korea, including the capital of Seoul. This temporary solution was extended to five years by the Americans and Soviets. The Koreans were not allowed to be part of the talks.
In South Korea, the United States Established a Military Government, keeping many high-ranking Japanese army officials in charge, which didn’t sit well with the people of South Korea, who were already upset because they were not given any say in their destiny. This culminated in April, 1948 when up to 60,000 people were killed in a violent uprising. The next month, South Korea had its first general elections, establishing the Republic of Korea. In North Korea, an election was also held, establishing a Communist Government.
Both governments wanted to see a unified Korea, but a political solution seemed unlikely, so Kim Il-sung travelled to Moscow to drum up support for a military invasion. With the Americans withdrawing their forces in June of 1949, with the Soviets becoming a military power in September of that year, and with America basically staying out of the communist revolution in China, Stalin began to arm the North Koreans.
However, 15 countries rallied under the banner of the United Nations to support the Republic of Korea. The North Koreans had almost taken the entire Korean peninsula by the time the UN arrived, with only the port city of Pusan remaining under control of the ROK.
The UN forces were able to push the North Koreans back, almost taking control of the entire country before Chinese forces joined in. While the front ebbed and flowed over the next two years, it hovered about the 38th parallel.
Canadians in Korea
The first Canadian fatalities of the war actually occurred right here in BC, at Canoe River, near Valemount when a train carrying the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery crashed into a freight train. Seventeen soldiers died in the crash, which was more than died in the entire first year of fighting in Korea.
A few weeks later, the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry arrived in Korea, the first Canadian ground troops. They were joined by the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, among others.
Canada also played an important part in the years following the July 27, 1953 Armistice. A two km demilitarized zone was established between North and South Korea, stretching from the Yellow Sea on the West Coast to the Sea of Japan on the East, a distance of 244 km.
Canadian troops patrolled a section of this zone, which included Hill 355, where one of Canada’s most important battles was fought.
In June 1954, the Royal Canadian Air Force made its final transport flight and in September of 1955, the last of the Navy left Korean waters.
The Canadian brigade’s operational role in Korea ended on Nov. 8, 1954, and the Second Battalion, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada left for home on April 6 1955 – the last Canadian infantry battalion to serve in Korea.
By February of 1956 there were only about 40 Canadians still in Korea, all members of the Medical and Dental Corps. The last to leave was the Canadian Medical Detachment, which sailed from Inchon on June 28, 1957.
The cease-fire still holds, although at times badly battered. Four tunnels have been discovered, dug under the DMZ by the north. Patrol of the DMZ is now done by American and Korean troops.