Canada could be called on for troops in event of war with North Korea

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canada has not been asked to contribute to any kind of military buildup around Korea. He says the Liberal government prefers to concentrate on diplomacy and would not discuss the country's obligations under the armistice that ended the first Korean War in 1953.

Canada may be obligated as part of United Nations Command born of 1953 armistice

Amid rising international tensions over its missile tests, North Korea held a massive military parade during celebrations for the 105th anniversary of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, last weekend. (CBC)

Should the tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula escalate into war, the United Nations could come calling on Canada for a military commitment. 

But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Friday the Trudeau government would prefer to focus its attention on diplomacy.

This rogue regime in North Korea is a danger not only to the immediate region but the entire world.- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

There are reports that China has put its air force units along the North Korean border on heightened alert, and South Korea has moved its military to a heightened state of readiness over the possibility that the regime in Pyongyang will conduct another missile test, following a failed attempt last week.

China quickly denied the reports on Friday, but the buildup, which multiple media reports say could also include Russian forces, comes as a U.S. aircraft carrier strike force now moves towards Korean waters. 

Rear Admiral Jim Kilby, commander of Carrier Strike Group One posted the news on social media. Last week, the White House said the task force was on its way to Korean waters when it, in fact, was not. 

Soldiers' lives 'at risk'

Canada fought under the UN in the Korean War and is part of an organization known as the United Nations Command, or UNC, which came out of the 1953 armistice that ended three years of brutal fighting between North and South Korea.

There was never a formal peace treaty and the two nations have remained technically at war for over six decades.

"Diplomacy is the one thing we need to focus on first, because at the end of the day you could be putting soldiers' lives at risk," Sajjan said from Mumbai, India, in a conference call with reporters in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently expressed concern about what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might do next.

"We are worried about the dangerous and unstable North Korean regime — period," Trudeau said on April 10 while in Normandy, concluding visits to Canadian First and Second World War battlefields. 

A U.S. Army tank takes part in a military exercise in Paju, near the North Korea- South Korea border on April 14. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

"This rogue regime in North Korea is a danger not only to the immediate region but the entire world," Trudeau said.

Sajjan said he has been in close touch with U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis and they spoke specifically about the escalating tensions in Korea.

If the shooting starts, the United States-South Korea Combined Forces Command would take the lead in the initial stage of fighting, but policy documents prepared for former defence minister Peter MacKay in 2010 say reinforcements could be assembled using the existing, decades-old UN framework.

"The UNC structure would be used as a means of force-generating, and receiving and tasking any contributions that UNC sending states may choose to contribute in the event of a crisis," said the document, originally obtained and published by The Canadian Press.

The Department of National Defence confirmed on Friday that Canada remains part of the organization because it was one of the original 17 countries that took part in the fighting.

In this image made from video aired by North Korean broadcaster KRT, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un applauds during a parade at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang on April 15. (KRT/Associated Press)

No binding treaty obligation

Six members of the Canadian Armed Forces are currently serving with the UNC.

But unlike NATO, there is no binding, clear-cut obligation for Canada to join a potential military action in Korea.

Sajjan said National Defence has, regardless of the situation, "done prudent planning" for possible crises.

"Our military will always play a responsible role, and the responsible role right now is to allow diplomacy to work," Sajjan said. "And, I'm very happy to see China, who has significant influence over North Korea, is actually taking concrete efforts in this regard."

Over the past few weeks, in response to the rising rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese media has suggested Beijing has the option of halting crude oil shipments to North Korea — something that would put enormous pressure on Kim's regime. But a major Chinese newspaper said on Friday that China, by itself, cannot force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Trump ratcheted up the pressure on China with a Tweet Friday morning that read: "China is very much the economic lifeline to North Korea so, while nothing is easy, if they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.