By Scott Taylor
My Personal interest in Korea can be traced back to my early teen years when I would eagerly await the next episode of the popular TV sitcom M*A*S*H. The setting for that show was a U.S. Army field hospital handling the front-line casualties of the bloody Korean conflict. While that does not sound like an idyllic backdrop for comedy, it did provide actor-producer Alan Alda with a successful vehicle with a strong anti-war undertone. The Korea portrayed in M*A*S*H was one of primitive villages and a backward nation relying upon international intervention to thwart North Korean communist aggression.
By the time I enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1982, the last of the Canadian veterans who had served in the 1950–1953 Korean War had long since retired. However, for us Cold War warriors, Korea was considered to be Canada’s last real shooting war and hence these veterans were given special reverence among serving soldiers.
Being posted to the Second Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI) also meant taking a crash course in all things related to the Battle of Kapyong. All members of 2 PPCLI, to this day, wear the blue and gold rectangular U.S. Presidential Citation on their left uniform sleeve. Of course, prior to sewing on of the citations, every member was told in detail of their battalion’s predecessors who had distinguished themselves on a mountain summit back in April 1951. The Patricias, along with a battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, a New Zealand artillery battery, and a squadron of U.S. heavy tanks had bravely plugged a hole in the United Nations line and effectively stopped a Chinese offensive from possibly capturing Seoul.
As part of the U.S.-led United Nations intervention in Korea, a total of over 26,000 Canadian soldiers were deployed during the three-year conflict. Of that number, 516 died in Korea (312 of them battlefield casualties) and another 1,235 were either wounded or remained missing. The Royal Canadian Navy also dispatched a total of eight destroyers to the Korea theatre and the Royal Canadian Air Force provided a vital role through the provision of transport aircraft. In the end, the United Nations did not defeat the communists but rather drove them back and held them on the 38th parallel. This artificial boundary dividing Korea into North and South entities was to have been a temporary measure following Japan’s surrender in August 1945.
As wary allies, the Soviet Union occupied the Korean territory north of the 38th parallel while the U.S. took responsibility for the southern portion of the peninsula. The Japanese had occupied Korea since 1910 and, with their forced departure, the Soviets established a communist regime in their northern enclave, while the U.S. established a capitalist dictatorship in Seoul. By the time the Soviets withdrew from Korea in 1950, the Cold War was in full effect in Europe. The Soviets had furnished North Korean communist leader Kim Il-sung with an abundance of weaponry and on June 25, 1950, Kim used that arsenal to invade the South.
The initial communist advances were eventually checked, and as U.S. and United Nations troops began to arrive, these gains were reversed. When U.S. Commander-in-Chief Douglas McArthur pushed beyond the 38th parallel right up to the Yalu River, the fledgling People’s Republic of China intervened on the side of their fellow communists. With Chinese assistance, the front lines were re-established roughly along the 38th parallel and a bloody stalemate ensued. When the ceasefire was signed on July 27, 1953, neither side could claim a clear-cut victory. Technically, the two Koreas remain in a state of declared war. However, if one looks at the reality of what has transpired over the six decades since the United Nations intervened to militarily preserve South Korea, there is no denying the success of that intervention.
From the Canadian military’s perspective, the Korean War is one of the very few (if not only) post-Second World War international combat interventions that have had a truly successful outcome. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 led to the creation of an independent Kosovo in 2007, but given that Kosovo is now the poorest and most corrupt nation in Europe, that can hardly be labeled a success. Our 12-year campaign in Afghanistan did not defeat the Taliban, as that insurgency continues to gain strength and threatens to topple the regime we established in Kabul. In Libya, there is complete anarchy as the rebels we supported to defeat President Moammar Gadhafi have spent the past five years battling each other. In Iraq and Syria, no western leader has yet to describe what a vision of victory will even look like, yet we send Canadian troops to train Kurdish separatists while formally supporting a unified Iraq. With all that doom and gloom in the wake of Canada’s recent failures, the Korean example shines brightly in comparison.
I recently had the opportunity to observe South Korea’s incredible post-war transformation first-hand. In April, I was invited to attend the annual “Journalist Forum for World Peace” (JFWP) international conference as Canada’s only representative. The official purpose of the JFWP gathering is to bring 75 journalists from over 50 countries to discuss the effects of Korea remaining divided due to the unresolved conflict with North Korea. The formal resolution announced at the end of the conference was the unanimous call for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. However, the more important message, which the JFWP organizers intended to convey, was just how far South Korea has evolved into a developed country with a developed market and a high-income economy.
From the moment the Air Canada flight touched down at Seoul’s Incheon Airport it became rapidly evident that this is not your M*A*S*H-vintage Korea. The level of automation and the sophistication of the transportation system was well proven during the 75-minute commute to Seoul’s City Hall District. The friendliness and courtesy of the Korean people was instantly conveyed as complete strangers offered assistance and guidance — often walking hundreds of metres out of their own way to ensure my ultimate arrival at the conference.
The scale of Seoul’s urbanization was simply astounding. Huge blocks of apartment towers visibly stretched out to the horizon in all directions. If one includes the city itself, plus the surrounding suburbs and environs, the greater Seoul population is close to 25 million people. To accommodate that dense mass of humanity, the Seoul subway system has 22 lines augmented by hundreds of bus routes. The streets were impeccably clean and even around the central train station there were no beggars or panhandlers in sight. There are a lot of young soldiers in uniform on Seoul’s streets, many of them on leave from their units. All Korean males still serve at least 21 months of conscripted military service.
Since the Korean War, when it was largely an agrarian-based economy, South Korea has grown its industrial base unfathomably, and massive internationally recognized corporations like Samsung and Kia Motors have propelled South Korea into a G20 nation with the 11th largest economy in the world.
During the war against the communists, the U.S. had supplied South Korea with everything — from weapons and munitions to uniforms and tents. However, in the 1970s South Korea began increasingly producing its own military hardware; now they are one of Asia’s largest exporters of high-tech defence products. One of the areas in particular that Korean industry excels in is shipbuilding. The shipyards in Busan are even constructing basic hulls for such warship-building giants as France’s DCNS.
Innovation is something that South Korea not only prides itself in, but in which it continues to heavily invest in. As part of the JFWP tour, we visited the Samsung Innovation Museum, which included a short, fascinating video of the future world as enriched by products their inventors are currently developing.
On the flip side of their being at the vanguard of technological advances, the Koreans were keen to display their rich history and culture. World-class singers, dancers and artists entertained conference attendees. Site tours included imperial palaces — complete with martial arts displays and masked dance performances — as well as a 1,000-year-old village that remains inhabited
Throughout our visit in late April, North Korea President Kim Jong-un was making threatening noises and had conducted a series of missile launches. This in turn drew further condemnations of North Korea by the UN, and American media reports made it sound as if the world was on the brink of Armageddon. However, these developments caused barely a ripple of concern among the South Korean citizenry. For 63 years, they have been living under the threat of a renewed war with North Korea, but during that span of time the South has prospered and developed. Yes, armed Korean soldiers on both sides of the demilitarized zone still face each other down on a constant basis, but the busloads of schoolchildren visiting the DMZ and buying souvenirs at the gift shop removes any sense of a return to an actual shooting war.
Not that the Korean War is ever far from the minds of the population and with that remains a sense of gratitude for those foreign soldiers who gave their lives in defence of South Korea. The UN cemetery in Busan is meticulously well kept and the most elegantly landscaped military cemetery I have ever seen. As Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, with a population of 3.5 million, does not have an abundance of undeveloped prime real estate. However, the rolling acres of lush green lawn dotted with blossoming cherry trees of the UN cemetery remains sacrosanct and, more importantly, a popular tourist site for Korean citizens.
There is much we could learn from the example of South Korea’s post-war success wherein an impoverished, war-ravaged Asian country morphed into a world-leading exporter. For instance, it was under dictators that South Korea grew its economy and, once buoyed by prosperity, the Koreans began building their democracy.
In more recent international military interventions, the focus has been to rush into creating a democracy without establishing an economic engine to support it. The results have predictably been catastrophic. However, one thing is very clear. For those Canadian soldiers who paid the ultimate price during the Korean War, their sacrifice was certainly not in vain.