Canadian Korean War veterans warily watch historic leaders' summit

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet for their first face-to-face talks in more than a decade Friday, Canadian veterans of the Korean War will be watching closely.

27,000 Canadians involved in 'Forgotten War,' our 3rd-bloodiest, could lose 'everything we fought for'

Michael Czuboka, 86, was one of more than 20,000 Canadians who fought as part of a United Nations force during the combat phase of the Korean War, which started in June 1950. (Jaison Empson, CBC News)

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet for their first face-to-face talks in more than a decade Friday, Canadian veterans of the Korean War will be watching closely.

"We're very worried," said 86-year-old Michael Czuboka.

"The last thing we need is the person in the North dropping shells and God knows what else on Seoul and other places. It would be a total disaster. It's terrifying, from that point of view, that we would lose everything we fought for."

The meeting will take place on the south side of the Korean border village of Panmunjom. It's the first time a North Korean leader will cross the border since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

It will include a welcoming ceremony and banquet dinner, and there will be live TV broadcasts for key parts of the summit.

Half a world away in Winnipeg, Czuboka will be watching carefully.

Wrote several books

"I hope this meeting takes place and that they can arrange for some mutually agreeable situation where we can live together," he said.

Czuboka, who has written several books about the Korean War, hopes a new story will be written after this meeting.

"I think I've always had that hope."

More than 20,000 Canadians fought as part of a United Nations force during the combat phase of the Korean War, which started in June 1950, and about 7,000 served with a peacekeeping force until 1955.

After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada's third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 and wounding more than 1,200.

Czuboka lied about his age to enlist with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion. He remembers arriving in South Korea "like it was yesterday."

"First thing we saw was about 70 black American soldiers, and they'd been bayonetted with machine guns, and there was blood all over the snow. I didn't eat for three days," he said.

Czuboka fought in the Battle of Kapyong in 1951, the result of a massive spring offensive from Communist forces that outnumbered the coalition forces.

Wiped them out

His battalion was surrounded by the Chinese army for three days.

"When the Chinese attacked us one evening, 500 came up the hill and we turned our mortars 180 degrees and we fired six .50-calibre machine guns and we wiped them out, all 500 and there was just blood and gore all over," he recalled.

"How we managed to survive, I don't know how. It was kind of a miracle. The important thing is lots of historians say that by staying on the hill, we saved all of Korea. Because if they'd got past us, they could've taken Seoul."

The Canadians were awarded a U.S. Presidential Citation for their efforts.

The Korean War ended in July 1953 with a truce, but the countries have been technically at war ever since.

Gerald Bennett, left, and Frank Orvis both served in South Korea as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force between 1953-54. They have been awarded a certificate and Ambassador for Peace medal by the South Korean government. (Jaison Empson, CBC News)

Frank Orvis, 88, and Gerald Bennett, 84, grew up together in the northern Manitoba community of Matheson Island. They were part of the peacekeeping force between 1953-54. Their job was to patrol the demilitarized zone.

"We had to stay on the line there. We stayed and patrolled the line for a long time after it was over," Bennett said during a visit this week to Orvis's home in Selkirk, Man.

So many years later, Orvis still thinks about the South Koreans and their struggle to survive.

"I remember we were out one time on a convoy and we had a big parade and then they had food after. When they put the food out, we all had a good meal and what was left was thrown in the garbage cans and the little kids were coming taking out that stuff that we didn't eat," he said.

'Good thing'

Orvis said their mission was to stop the spread of communism, which is why he's so interested to see what happens during Friday's leaders' summit.

"I always wondered when it was going to end or what was going to happen.… It's a good thing, maybe, that it is coming to an end," Orvis said.

"Well, I don't trust North Korea. They lied so many times about what they were promising, it might happen again," added Bennett.

Working-level talks have been taking place all week between the two countries. 

South Korea stopped blasting propaganda across the demilitarized zone last Monday, a gesture of goodwill and the first time in more than two years the broadcasts have halted.

Its Defence Ministry said the decision was made "to ease military tension between the two Koreas and to create a peaceful environment for the upcoming summit."

Dismantlement

This meeting was unthinkable just last year when North Korea conducted the sixth and most powerful nuclear test and three long-range missile test launches.

The United States wants the verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

North Korea has said it will close its nuclear testing facility and suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, but won't say whether it will give up its nuclear weapons or scale back production of missiles and related components.

Olivia Do and Wonjae Song moved to Winnipeg from South Korea in 2004. They publish The Korea Times and The Diversity Times. They have also published a book called, The Legacy of Korea War Veterans: The Forgotten War in Pictures. (Jaison Empson, CBC News)

"For me, it was very surprising after North Korea launched some missiles several times, many times. I was shocked how this meeting so quickly came to us," said Olivia Do, a Winnipegger originally from South Korea.

"Many people hope Korea should be one, because we … use the same language, we are the same people, but we separated for many, many years after the war. So we hope the meeting will go well. We need peace. No more war in the Korean Peninsula."

Do and her husband publish The Korea Times and The Diversity Times. They have also published a book on Canada's involvement in the Korean War, using photos taken by veterans.

The couple has also been sending names of Canadian Korean War veterans to the South Korean government — which presents them with a certificate and an "Ambassador for Peace" medal.

"We didn't have a chance to express our appreciation to the Korean war veterans directly but throughout this work, we can contact them," Do said. "They are getting older and older, and we are happy and sad at the same time when we deliver the certificates. Sometimes there is no veterans there because they are old and passed away."

When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in meet for their first face-to-face talks in more than a decade Friday, Canadian veterans of the Korean War will be watching closely. 3:00

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc

With files by Brett Purdy