The Korean War between 1950 and 1953 continues to shed its status as Canada’s Forgotten War as current events on the Korean Peninsula and continuous research have shifted the historical perception of that conflict.
David Zimmerman, who teaches military history at the University of Victoria, said the status of the Korean War as Canada’s Forgotten War stems from its proximity to the far-larger Second World War, which featured far more Canadian soldiers and casualties.
According to official figures, 516 Canadian soldiers died serving in Korea. That is 400 less than the number of Canadians who died on the beaches of Dieppe in a single day in August 1942. But if the Canadian contribution to the Korean conflict as measured by material, personnel and casualties pales compared to its respective contributions in the First and Second World War, the publication of several new books has cast the conflict into a new, more comprehensive light as Canada prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the armistice on the Korean Peninsula in July 1953.
The conflict itself was also no less consequential for those who served and suffered in it.
“Combat in Korea was pretty awful,” said Zimmerman. “It was pretty nasty, sometimes as nasty as the First World War’s trench battles.”
The conflict also remains current insofar that North Korea and South Korea remain technically at war more than 72 years after communist troops first crossed the demarcation line dividing the Korean Peninsula to forcibly reunite it following its division after the Second World War into Soviet and western spheres.
The Korean War with its 3 million total deaths was therefore a hot theatre of the early Cold War with broader ramifications beyond Asia, including the deepening division of Europe and the eventual re-armament of West and East Germany, each embedded in opposing military alliances. The Korean War might have also nearly led to the Third World War itself after leading American generals mused about the use of nuclear weapons when communist China had come to the rescue of North Korea.
While the early phase of the war saw sudden military gains and reversals for both communist forces and United Nation forces, a stalemate eventually ensued roughly along the original starting lines and the armistice largely confirmed the status quo.
But unlike East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc, North Korea survived the Cold War and its subsequent acquisition of nuclear weapons at great expense to its starving population starting in the 1990s has given the country global influence far beyond its actual economic capacities.
“The tensions in the last year or so have been intense and God knows what the North Koreans are playing,” said Zimmerman. “They are certainly playing a very, very dangerous game and I don’t think anyone can predict what is going to happen.”
For now, North Korea remains under Beijing’s tight leash. China’s aggressive posture toward Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inclusive of nuclear sabre-rattling also consumes a lot of attention, said Zimmerman.
But at the same time, “the intensity of the confrontational policies” which North Korea pursues make it clear that the public should also be paying more attention to the Korean Peninsula, he added.
This said, he also cautions against drawing any parallels between the war between Russia and Ukraine and the war between the Koreas.
They represent very different situations and it is hard to draw any direct links.
“There is always this element of chance, there is always this element of uncertainty (in war) and one of the things that historians make the mistake of, is when they are asked by people like you to predict what is going to happen, my prediction is I don’t know.”
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