Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

On containing North Korea


You have to search on local cenotaphs to find mention of the Korean conflict. Canadian troops, sailors and airmen fought valiantly in the UN sponsored effort, at Kapyong, Chail-li and other, mostly forgotten, battles with North Korean and Chinese forces.

We lost 516 men; about three hundred of them are buried in military cemeteries near Seoul.

But we rarely hear from the veterans of this conflict. Why is that?

Is it because there was no clear victory, no dictator dead in his bunker, no totalitarian army disarmed?

In 1950 Canadian forces were drawn into what was essentially a civil war in Korea. Kim Il Sung, the northern leader, was a client (some would say a puppet) of Stalin and the Comintern. The Cold War was already casting its chill around the world and Mao was still consolidating power in China when Kim Il Sung launched his attack at 4:40 in the morning on June 25.

Early successes stretched North Korean lines to the breaking point. Mao was fearful that the Americans would easily roll the offensive back, maybe into China. Kim and Stalin ignored his concerns.

Mao was right. The Americans decided they would hold the line on Communist expansion. With UN support, they landed at Inchon and swept the North Koreans back towards the Yalu River, the border with Communist China. But the Americans made the same mistake as the North Koreans, overextending their forces and supply lines. In October of 1950, the People's Liberation Army came to the North Koreans' rescue.

In Canada we had demobilized our armed forces after World War II as quickly as possible. The Korean emergency spurred the government back into military action. The Canadian navy was authorized to provide immediate support to the Americans in the summer of 1950 and the generals in Ottawa moved rapidly to create the Canadian Army Special Force, a volunteer army that was made up mostly of younger veterans of WW II.

By the time these volunteers shipped for Korea in the autumn of 1950, they thought they would arrive after the fighting was over. The Americans seemed headed for swift victory.

But the Chinese made all the difference. The war seesawed back and forth in brutal winter conditions. In a period of just a few months, it cost hundreds of thousands of lives, grinding to a stalemate along the 38th Parallel. Truce talks began in July 1951 and took two years to complete. The standoff continues to this day.

The news that the North Koreans have been working on nuclear weapons in spite of their pledge not to do so broke last week. The general strangeness of North Korea should inoculate us against surprise at the admission.

Canadians spilled blood and gave their lives in Korea. But in the end, we didn't destroy Kim Il Sung and his henchmen. We failed to sweep Communism back across the Yalu River. We allowed a dangerous, totalitarian regime to flourish to its people's great detriment.

The doctrine of "containment" was ascendant in Washington in the mid-Fifties, even though powerful voices were crying for an expansion of the war and even for the use of nuclear weapons against China. So the international community (mostly the Americans) has parked itself on the 38th Parallel for fifty years.

Looking back (and in spite of the nuclear shenanigans by the North Koreans), containment still seems like it was the right choice. And containment has as much to recommend itself in the current battle against terrorism as it did in the Cold War fight against Communism in Korea.

But it's victory, not containment, that gets the blood stirring. Which is probably why you have to look so hard for remembrances of the Canadians who died in Korea.

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