The Korean War began 25 June 1950, when North Korean armed forces invaded South Korea. The war’s combat phase lasted until an armistice was signed 27 July 1953. As part of a United Nations (UN) force consisting of 16 countries, 26,791 Canadian military personnel served in the Korean War, during both the combat phase and as peacekeepers afterward. The last Canadian soldiers left Korea in 1957. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 Canadians and wounding more than 1,200. The two Koreas remain technically at war today.
Korean Peninsula Divided
Late in the Second World War, the Japanese-held Korean peninsula was liberated by both Soviet and American armed forces. Soviet troops occupied the country north of the 38th parallel, with the Americans to the south. After the war, the Soviets, Americans, and their Korean supporters could not agree on the country’s government. The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, which included Canadian members, oversaw elections in May 1948, but the Soviets forbid these elections in the north. The pro-West Republic of Korea (ROK) was then founded in the south and not long after, the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared in the north. Both governments sought to unify all of Korea and civil war broke out in the country in the late 1940s.
Meanwhile, in late 1949, the Chinese Civil War ended with the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China. Communist Chinese and Soviet leaders believed that North Korea could unify Korea by force, without Western interference. The communists were emboldened by the American decision to limit assistance to the non-communist nationalist Chinese regime on the island of Formosa (Taiwan). In late June 1950, with Chinese and Soviet-supplied weapons and equipment, the North Korean Army invaded the ROK.
United Nations Intervenes
The United States led the decision to help the ROK through the UN. The UN General Assembly was dominated by Western countries. Since the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council because of the UN's refusal to include the new communist Chinese regime as one of its five permanent members, the Soviets could not exercise a veto. The Security Council thus condemned North Korean aggression and called on UN members "to render every assistance" to the ROK. On 28 June 1950 Lester B. Pearson, Canada's Secretary of State for External Affairs, encouraged a Canadian response through the UN, and under US military leadership. In the government's view, Canada would fight for the UN and the principle of collective security.
Canada’s Military Commitments
Initially, Canada contributed three Royal Canadian Navy destroyers (HMCS Athabaskan, HMCS Cayuga, and HMCS Sioux) and a Royal Canadian Air Force transport squadron, No. 426 “Thunderbird” Squadron. American, UN, and domestic pressure then led to Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent’s announcement on 7 August 1950 of a Canadian Army Special Force (CASF) — later named the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group — to expand the country’s UN contributions to Korea.
War’s Early Phases
At first it appeared that the war would be short-lived as, under US General Douglas MacArthur, UN forces drove the North Koreans back, first to the 38th parallel, then to Korea’s border with China. However, by the end of October 1950 thousands of Chinese army "volunteers" crossed the Yalu River into North Korea, driving the UN forces back south.
Canadian Military Participation
In November 1950, the Canadian Army brigade’s 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry Regiment, was sent overseas and landed in Korea in December. In May 1951, the rest of the Canadian brigade arrived. For the army, the Korean War became largely a “war of patrols” in rough, mountainous terrain, but infantry, tank, and artillery units were also involved in heavy fighting at the battles of Kapyong (22-25 April 1951), Hill 355, also known as Kowang-San, (22-25 November 1951 and 22-24 October 1952), and Hill 187 (2-3 May 1953), among many other actions. Eight Canadian warships took turns in Korean waters protecting UN aircraft carriers, busting enemy trains along the coasts, and helping other onshore operations. The air force’s transport planes ferried people and materials across the Pacific Ocean, while 22 Canadian pilots flew jet aircraft with the United States Air Force in Korea.
End of the War and Aftermath
After several months of movement by both sides, in mid-1951 the front lines became static near the 38th parallel. Until the war ended the fighting took place along these lines, mostly consisting of patrols and raids against hilltop trench positions across the area in-between UN and enemy lines, known as “No Man’s Land.” During the two years that followed the 1953 armistice, Canadians continued to serve in Korea; many were troops who guarded and patrolled the ROK’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which continues to separate the two Koreas. All Canadian armed forces personnel who served in Korea from 1950 to 1957 are considered Korean War veterans.