Soldiers stopped Seoul from falling in Korean War, could Canada step in again?

Korean War legacy could inform engagement

OTTAWA — Sixty-six years ago this month, John Bishop was one of hundreds of Canadians who fought to keep the South Korean city of Seoul from falling back into North Korean hands.

The battle of Kapyong was a turning point in the Korean War, but as tensions escalate anew in the Korean Peninsula, Bishop isn’t sure Canadians could play such a pivotal role in the region again.

“I don’t think Canada, no matter what we did or could do, would change the situation at all,” he said.

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump only listens to himself and he keeps changing his mind.”

But so too has Canada, one former Canadian diplomat suggests.

Marius Grinius served as Canada’s ambassador to both North and South Korea between 2005 and 2007. He said he would travel back and forth and share the information and observations he gathered in Pyongyang with Canadian diplomats as well as those from other countries.

Then, under the previous Conservative government, Canada adopted a “controlled engagement” policy with North Korea. The move effectively cut off all diplomatic ties to the country and Canada lost its ear on the ground and the cachet that it could be using now, Grinius said.

Canada’s trade with Asia is booming and it has strong and deep cultural ties to the region thanks to the diaspora here, while the legacy of its wartime contribution lives on through the U.N. Korea command to this day, he said.

“But we, Canada, have been running hot and cold for decades in terms of substantive commitments on the security side and we should be very interested in long term stability and security,” he said.

North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and 24 ballistic missile tests last year, defying six Security Council resolutions banning those activities, and it has conducted additional missile tests this year including one that failed last weekend.

That weekend test loomed over a visit Monday by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, where he warned Pyongyang that after years of taunting the U.S. and South Korea with its nuclear ambitions, “the era of strategic patience is over.”

North Korea has responded by accusing the United States of turning the Korean peninsula into “the world’s biggest hotspot” and creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”

The country’s deputy U.N. ambassador also said the Trump administration’s deployment of a nuclear carrier task group to waters off the Korean peninsula again “proves the U.S. reckless moves for invading (North Korea) have reached a serious phase of its scenario.”

For his part, Korean War veteran Doug Finney said the suffering of the North Korean people — and the risk the same could befall South Koreans if outright conflict resumes — is the reason Canada must act.

Some international aid agencies estimate that about 41 per cent of the North Korean population are undernourished and roughly seven million people are believed to lack access to clean drinking water.

Otherwise, the legacies of the 27,000 Canadians who served in the war and the 516 who died is at risk, Finney said.

“I can’t see us standing by now and not doing anything,” he said. 

Canada does bear humanitarian obligations, said Tina Park, co-founder and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and a longtime scholar of Canada-Korea relations.

As an architect of the responsibility to protect doctrine, a political commitment made by all UN member states to prevent crimes against humanity, Canada ought to address the fact those crimes are being committed in North Korea, she said.

“If we really mean Canada is back, this is a prime time for the Canadian government to show what we mean by responsibility to protect,” she said.

– with files from The Associated Press

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the wrong name for the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

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