Canadians remember the Korean conflict — the war that refuses to end

It took an awfully long time — almost three decades — to convince the federal government to carve the dates of the Korean War into the side of Canada's national war memorial. But in many respects, the conflict that claimed 516 Canadian lives — and never formally ended — remains Canada's forgotten war.

Canadians came home to a country that had largely forgotten why it had sent them to fight

Korean War veterans, along with Lt.Gen. Wayne Eyre, commander of the Canadian Army, salute during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War at the Monument to the Canadian Fallen in Ottawa, June 21, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It took an awfully long time — almost three decades — to convince the federal government to carve the dates of the Korean War into the side of Canada's national war memorial.

Tucked away on the side of the soaring granite monument in downtown Ottawa, next to Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the inscription is easy to miss. For author and historian Ted Barris, it's a sad illustration of where the bloody, three-year-long war and its eventual stalemate sit in the country's collective memory.

"I think it was the mid-1990s before local cenotaphs across the country chipped the names of those who served in Korea into their [local] stone monuments. And up until that point, for many Canadians, they were invisible," said Barris, author of Deadlock in Korea, a seminal account of soldiers on the front lines of what was known at the time (somewhat derisively) as a United Nations "police action".

But the war was never invisible to Bill Black; he can see it still. When the war broke out — 70 years ago today — the former able seaman was a 16-year-old high school student, the child of a Second World War soldier who'd served overseas for years.

Korean War veteran Bill Black. The war broke out 70 years ago today and never formally ended. "Madness," Black calls it. (Supplied)

Initially, Black joined the army militia (now the reserves) — the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto — with a phoney identification card. His father convinced him to switch to the navy.

He shipped out as a marine engineer aboard the Tribal Class destroyer HMCS Cayuga in 1952 as the war entered its bloody, decisive phase. When he looks at the state of the Korean peninsula today — with no peace treaty and no prospects of one, and a brutal, nuclear-armed dictatorship periodically threatening its neighbour to the south with destruction — he is dismayed.

"It's just madness," he said.

A South Korean army soldier passes by a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

More than 26,000 Canadians served in the war, on land, at sea and in the air. The Korean conflict took the lives of 516 Canadians, making it the country's third most deadly conflict.

The war and its painful legacy of division and international tension is also clear in the mind of Tina Park, a noted national security analyst and commentator who grew up in South Korea.

June 25, 1950 — the day 75,000 North Korean troops under communist dictator Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, swept across the border — has a solemn place on the South Korean calendar.

From kindergarten onwards, Park said, South Korean schoolchildren learn to honour and thank veterans.

"When I was growing up, it affected me personally," she said. "I would dream of reunification one day."

Is the dream of reunification dead?

The dream of a reunited Korea is just as elusive today as it was on July 27, 1953, when the warring nations agreed to an armistice that put a stop to the fighting but did not restore the peace.

The intervening years have only seen the trenches grow deeper and the barbed wire thicker between the two sides.

North Korea's belligerent, reclusive regime — now armed with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles — marked the anniversary of the start of the war this week with a new round of threats against the United States.

Park said the atmosphere of anxiety and foreboding on the peninsula is not likely to lift soon. She said she fears the dream of reunification — of bringing together families separated for generations by a war that refuses to conclude — is about to suffer a lingering death.

The decades since the armistice have only deepened the profound differences between the two Koreas, economically, politically and socially. Park said many millennials in the affluent south are indifferent to the notion of reunification. Some are even openly hostile to the idea of embracing their poverty-stricken, insular northern cousins.

The last gasp of the Cold War

To them, she said, reunification isn't worth the expense and upheaval it would entail. But the fate of reunification is also largely out of their hands, she added.

A lasting peace would require the endorsement and support of the United States, China and Russia, the chief antagonists in the proxy conflicts of the post-Second World War period. Barris said Korea was the first hot conflict of the Cold War, the generation-long geopolitical standoff that has been largely over now for more than a quarter century — making it especially ironic that the Korean conflict itself was never resolved.

"This was, then and now, a great standoff in every respect, politically, militarily, between East and West," said Barris, who has interviewed hundreds of Korean War veterans about their experiences.

For many Canadians, then and now, the Korean War remains a distant, murky event. Even when Canadians were still fighting and dying on the peninsula, few people back home had a clear idea of what was going on.

A 'totally invisible' war

One soldier told Barris how, upon his arrival back home in northern Ontario after fighting in Korea, his pals approached him and asked where he had been.

"They had no idea," said Barris. "It was totally invisible to small town Canada, what young men who had stepped up for the Korean War had experienced."

Black recalled the day his ship arrived back home to silence — no cheering crowds, no parades, just the spouses and children of the married sailors. He couldn't help but contrast it with the pandemonium that greeted the arrival of his father's troop train in Toronto following the Second World War.

His most enduring memory of the war was a visit to an orphanage ashore, when Canadian sailors brought the children toys and treats.

"They were all in tatters," he said.

Canadian Korean War veteran John Stuber, right, is welcomed by a Korean man as he takes part in the Commonwealth Commemoration ceremony at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea Friday April 26, 2013 in Busan, Republic of Korea. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Black said the collective amnesia of Canadians he saw upon his return home has been compensated for, in many respects, by the respect the Korean people continue to show the men and women who fought for them.

"The people of South Korea have provided and instilled in us a sense of pride."


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.