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What to do about North Korea?

North Korea displaying its missiles in a public ceremony.
Facebook North Korea
Canada went to war in 1950 because North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was a clear affront to the principles of the still-fledgling United Nations and was viewed as a potential stepping stone to more serious confrontation in Eastern Europe.

In fact, for decades it wasn’t considered a war at all, but a “police action,” long a sore point with veterans of the conflict who knew the truth.

But the roots of the conflict and its continuing tensions, like so many coming home to roost around the world in recent years, lie in postwar compromise between Allied powers. On the Korean Peninsula, ruled by Japan from 1910 until the last days of the Second World War, this meant the division of Korea along the 38th parallel.

Now, almost 70 years later, some of the players and most of the dynamics have changed.

In 1950, the Soviet Union was the power of influence in the north; the United States in the south. Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, wanted to re-unify the country.

While Kim Jong-un still wants to reunify the Koreas, his major concern seems to be agitating the Americans. It is North Korea’s No. 1 trading partner, China, that has wielded the most influence on Pyongyang since communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. It no longer calls itself communist, but an increasingly isolated, autocratic and cult-like North Korea remains largely dependent on a communist nation.

Led by the United States, the West wasn’t so concerned with the fate of the Koreas, per se, as it was with the idea that the June 25, 1950, invasion could ultimately catapult the still-developing Cold War into a much more devastating confrontation elsewhere, said historian Andrew Burtch.

They may have considered it an affront to UN values, but Canada and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization never believed the Korean War was “the real show,” said Burtch, the post-1945 historian at the Canadian War Museum. “They didn’t really fear that it would be World War III right away.”

Ottawa felt the bulk of its resources would be best concentrated on what it considered the next arena of conflict—Europe.

Shortly after the Korean War broke out, Canada deployed forces to patrol the skies and borders of West Germany. The army it sent to Korea was not part of its standing force but a specially recruited one.

The implications of war on the Korean Peninsula then and now are vastly different, and principally lie in two key factors: South Korea’s thriving economy and North Korea’s military capabilities, which are believed to include short- to medium-range nuclear missiles that could hit cities and U.S. military bases throughout the region.

South Korea is an electronics giant. Seoul, in 1950 a populous but in many ways quaint city with agrarian roots, is now a modern, populous, thriving and influential metropolis within easy range of North Korean artillery and missiles—conventional or otherwise.

“Even without nuclear weapons, it would still be a very, very difficult, devastating war,” said Burtch. “It would be a tragedy beyond measure. In the first hours of the war, it would be a very messy affair and very horrifying to behold.”

Would the Canada of today get involved militarily in the unlikely event war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula? Not likely, said Burtch. Canada would surely stand should-to-shoulder with the Americans diplomatically, he said. But its military resources are such that it would probably explore all its options and consider where its forces could best serve international stability and security. That might mean shoring up efforts in Syria and Iraq or the Baltic states, where it already has missions.

U.S. President Donald Trump has appealed to China to step in and act as a voice of reason in the current tensions. But, with the perspective of history at his fingertips, Burtch cautions that China’s influence may not be as great as one might hope.

In retrospect, Soviet influence in North Korea turned out to be less than believed at the time and for years after. The 1950 invasion was “a plan born and hatched in North Korea with its own policy objectives and its own war plan,” said Burtch.

“If the Soviets hadn’t supported it, would it have happened in 1950? No, probably not. Would it have happened later on? Probably,” he said. “So, I don’t know that [China’s] is a decisive influence. I think that to look to China as telling North Korea what to do is kind of like saying the United States will tell South Korea what to do.

“I don’t think that would hold up to closer examination because of the complex history between North Korea—the Koreas, period—and China.”


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