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Canada needs to acknowledge its violent history in Korea

Excavation of the historical archive does not paint a wholly benevolent picture of Canada’s contributions to the Korean War

Canadian PoliticsWar ZonesAsia

Still image from the film Korea Brigade, produced by Canada’s Department of National Defence in 1951. Directed by Sergeant L. Stephens. Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

In a statement issued on July 27, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed the importance of Canada’s contribution to the Korean War, a catastrophic conflict whose outbreak he entirely blamed on North Korea. He described the crossing of the 38th parallel by North Korean forces as “the first open act of aggression since the establishment of the United Nations,” and stated that in response, 26,000 Canadian soldiers were deployed to the peninsula “to protect the sovereignty of South Korea.” Over 500 Canadians died in the fighting, making it Canada’s “third deadliest overseas conflict” after the First and Second World Wars.

“The war was devastating for Koreans,” Trudeau said, “as people struggled to find safety, and saw their homes, schools, and memories shattered. Families were separated, and many lost loved ones. By the time the armistice was signed in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, the war had claimed the lives of millions of people, many of whom were civilians.” While this statement is true, there is a notable omission: which side inflicted the majority of the devastation.

Between 1950 and 1953, the US military (supported by Canada and other allies) carried out a “long, leisurely, and merciless” bombing campaign against the North. Over half a million bombs were dropped. Napalm and chemical weapons were used. In the words of Air Force General Curtis Lemay, who led the strategic air command during the war, the US “eventually burned down every town in North Korea.” He later claimed that the US and its allies killed approximately 20 percent of the North Korean population.

Dean Rusk, future secretary of state, asserted that the US bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” Toward the end of the war, targets included civilian infrastructure such as hydroelectric and irrigation dams. The destruction of these dams resulted in the flooding of massive amounts of farmland, destroying entire crop yields. But there was no reference to these facts in Trudeau’s speech. When he mentioned that “the war” claimed millions of civilian lives, the average Canadian listener would be forgiven for believing that the North was solely responsible for every single death that occurred on the peninsula in those three years, given that, as the PM said, the North was apparently solely responsible for the outbreak of armed conflict.

The truth is much more complex, and as one might expect, an excavation of this history does not paint a wholly benevolent picture of Canada’s contributions to the Korean War.

“In the night of our ignorance,” writes decorated Korea scholar Bruce Cumings, “North Korea confirms all stereotypes.” Similarly, in Canadians’ night of ignorance about their own country’s actions abroad, the stereotypes of Canada’s supposedly generous and peace-loving nature find easy domestic confirmation.

The aim of this article is to illuminate some important yet underemphasized aspects of modern Korean history, and Canada’s role in raising and maintaining tensions on the peninsula, by borrowing from the work of a number of respected scholars of both Korea and Canada. By doing this, I hope to shine daylight on the night of our ignorance and introduce some much-needed background information to discussions of the Korean War in Canada. Furthermore, this essay will illustrate the largely negative role that Canada played on the peninsula in the twentieth century. In doing so, I would like to dispel the intellectual darkness that characterizes most conversations about Canadian foreign policy, and to challenge Canadians’ ignorance of their own country’s global role.

Canada and Imperial Japan

From 1910 to 1945, the Korean peninsula was a colony within imperial Japan’s so-called “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” During these years, Japan was a violently expansionist power that established brutal apparatuses of control and exploitation over other Asian populations. These colonial administrations were justified on the grounds of imperialist aspirations and phony racial supremacist ideas that closely resembled European theories of “scientific racism.”

Under the colonial administration, Korean political organizations were illegalized, Korean newspapers were closed, and Korean culture itself was effectively outlawed. “The education system was Japanized,” explains Stephen Gowans. “Koreans were forced to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, and worship at Shinto shrines, even though Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan, was foreign to Korea.” Simultaneously, the Japanese empire developed extractive industries on the back of a hyper-exploited Korean labour force and collaborated with rich landed families to service the imperial core. Some of these collaborator families later became the founders of the chaebols of modern South Korea, including Samsung, Hyundai, and LG.

“In pursuit of Japan’s imperial project,” Gowans writes, “Koreans were reduced to the status of subhumans, dehumanized as machines and beasts of burden, denied the dignity of self-determination, and alienated from their language and culture.” Nevertheless, Canadian historian Tyler Shipley points out that Japan’s colonial exploitation of peoples within its “Co-Prosperity Sphere,” including Koreans, was “undertaken with enthusiastic Canadian support.” In 1929, Canadian diplomat Hugh Keenleyside even stated that Korea should remain a colonial possession of Japan.

Similar to Canadian leaders’ support for Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the Canadian state viewed fascist Japan as an effective weapon against popular leftist movements that were resisting the global spread of capitalism. “Inherent in Japan’s imperial project,” Shipley writes, “was the defeat of popular movements oriented to the left, both within Japan and also in its growing empire.” Furthermore, “Japan represented an authoritarian, capitalist, imperial state in Asia, which made it not so different from Canada and its allies.” These facts endeared imperial Japan to the Canadian state during the early decades of the twentieth century.

As Japan expanded its military in the early twentieth century, some Canadian companies made a profit selling war materials to the burgeoning fascist empire. For instance, Japan was one of the world’s largest consumers of nickel, an essential mineral in modern warfare, but its territory had no nickel reserves of its own. Canada helped fill the gap. A notable amount of the nickel that imperial Japan used to modernize its military for regional conquest came from Canadian mines.

Canada’s International Nickel Company (INCO) recorded huge profits in the years after 1932 as fascist nations such as Italy, Germany, and Japan prepared their militaries for armed conflicts in Ethiopia, Spain, and China respectively. John Foster Dulles, who was general counsel for INCO at the time, even negotiated a deal with IG Farben to sell 10 percent of INCO’s total nickel output to the German trust, in exchange for which Farben would only purchase nickel from Mond, an INCO subsidiary. This deal permitted Nazi Germany to procure large amounts of Canadian nickel as it remilitarized during the 1930s. In his history of INCO, Jamie Swift recounts that from 1934 to 1937—a period that aligns with the early years of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and the lead-up to its devastating invasion of the wider Chinese territory—“nickel deliveries direct from Canada to Japan and Germany were… allowed to continue at their normal level.”

Japan’s brutal conquest of Manchuria—which led to the establishment of the notorious rape camps known as the “comfort women” system, in which tens of thousands of women, mostly Korean, suffered sexual violence at the hands of Japanese invaders—was openly justified by Canadian officials at the same time that Canadian minerals were quietly being used to support the Japanese war machine. In 1931, the year of Japan’s invasion, Hugh Keenleyside asserted that Japan “must be recognized as a stabilizing and regulating force” in Manchuria. In the aftermath of Japan’s infamous 1937 attack on the Chinese city of Nanjing, Canada’s envoy to Japan, Randolph Bruce, said that the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents was “simply an attempt [by Japan] to put her neighbour country in better shape, as [Japan] had already done in Manchuria.”

During the decades that Canada and its allies supported the militarization and expansionism of imperial Japan, Kim Il-sung and other anti-colonial (and frequently communist) leaders led hundreds of thousands of Koreans in a popular struggle against the fascist empire. Kim played a prominent role in expelling Japan from Manchuria, a colonial occupation that Canada had supported and justified, and by 1945 he had cultivated genuine nationalist credentials. During these years, Kim became, in Bruce Cumings’ words, a “classic Robin Hood figure” to many disadvantaged Koreans.

During the bombing of North Korea, conventional weapons such as explosives, incendiary bombs, and napalm destroyed nearly all of the country’s cities and towns, including an estimated 85 percent of its buildings. Photo from Interim Archives/Getty Images.

Partition and war

The partition of the Korean peninsula that followed the collapse of imperial Japan was not a decision that was made by any of the people it most affected. Koreans were not consulted about the bifurcation of their peninsula into “North” and “South,” and they were in fact intensely opposed to the idea, but the US-Soviet decision went forward nonetheless—with the proviso that the division was temporary.

Under the effective dictatorship of US Pacific commander Douglas MacArthur, the US occupied the land south of the 38th parallel and installed a violently anti-communist government whose military was placed under the command of the Pentagon (to this day, there is a formal agreement between the United States and the Republic of Korea that the US will take operational command of South Korean forces in the event of war). “In the south,” explains Ju-hyun Park, “the new US military government absorbed the old Japanese colonial bureaucracy, and ruled through terror in alliance with local bourgeois and landlord elements.”

In South Korea, the US wanted to create an anti-communist beachhead that would be economically integrated with the newly US-aligned Japanese government, itself a bastion of capitalist power in a leftward-drifting region of East Asia. A note sent from US Secretary of State George Marshall to under-secretary Dean Acheson stated this frankly: “Please have plan drafted of policy to organize a definite government of [South] Korea and connect up its economy with that of Japan.” The US military presence south of the 38th parallel was necessary for enforcing the creation of this economic paradigm. As Gowans explains, “[In addition to] putting Washington in a position to orient the Korean economy to Japan, a continued US military presence on the peninsula would facilitate the goal of containing and possibly rolling back leftist movements in nearby China, Russia, and North Korea.”

The ROK’s first president, Syngman Rhee, had lived in the US for many years. He possessed a BA from George Washington University, an MA from Harvard, and a PhD from Princeton. The Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) valued him for what they called his “American point of view.” His election as head of state was an outcome orchestrated by occupation forces, but Canada helped form a United Nations commission to validate the stolen election, thereby giving Canada’s stamp of approval to the horrific repression that followed.

Many of the senior positions in Rhee’s government were filled by the Korean upper-class who had collaborated with fascist Japan during the colonial era. To Korean partisans who had sacrificed everything to defeat the Japanese occupiers, this was unacceptable, and an undeclared war broke out between anti-occupation forces on the one hand and the US and its Korean allies on the other. Underground resistance continued for years in South Korea, and occupation authorities responded to their activities with overwhelming force. In September 1949, General W.L. Roberts, chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group to Korea, ordered all available ROK forces to “exterminate” (his words) the “guerrilla bands” that resisted the US presence. By 1950, between 100,000 and 200,000 Koreans had been killed by US occupation forces and their ROK partners, all without a word of protest from Canada.

The leadership on both sides of the 38th parallel were dead set on reunification. Cross-border skirmishes occurred along the parallel in the years leading up to the North’s invasion, and when Kim Il-sung launched the unification campaign, Canada jumped at the chance to expel the North Korean forces. The UN, under de facto US control (the Soviet Union was boycotting the organization at the time due to its refusal to recognize the communist government of China), founded a “peacekeeping mission” to which Canada contributed over 20,000 soldiers. In justifying Canada’s role in the UN force, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent described it as a “police action designed to prevent war by discouraging aggression.” As Tyler Shipley points out, “that police action would ultimately end the lives of several million Koreans, at least three million of them civilian, as well as more than 500 Canadians.” It also “reduced North Korea to rubble.”

A granular explication of the war’s progression need not be outlined here, but suffice to say, the US-led UN force acted atrociously, committing open war crimes against non-combatants and deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure, including agricultural facilities. Acclaimed American journalist I.F. Stone studied US military communiques while researching his Hidden History of the Korean War, and he described their contents as “literally horrifying.” The communiques described rocket attacks on villages, napalm saturation bombing, and more. In Stone’s words, they demonstrated a “complete indifference” to civilian life. “There were some passages,” he wrote, “which reflected… a kind of gay moral imbecility, utterly devoid of imagination—as if the flyers were playing in a bowling alley, with villages for pins.”

Canadian soldiers in the UN force were reported to regularly insult Koreans, labelling them a “yellow horde,” and frequently employing a four-letter slur that would later become associated with Americans in Vietnam. As Shipley, Yves Engler, and other Canadian journalists have documented, Canadian soldiers sometimes committed violent acts against the South Koreans they were allegedly protecting, including murder and rape. The Canadian diplomatic service was not amenable to these reports. When a journalist named Bill Boss tried to file a report about three Canadian soldiers beating a group of South Koreans and raping two women at a farmhouse, the Canadian embassy in Tokyo buried the story and labelled Boss a “subversive.”

External Affairs minister and later Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson urged greater censorship of critical reports coming out of Korea. In response to a New York Times story about a UN napalm raid that wiped out a village of two hundred civilians, Pearson cabled the Canadian ambassador in Washington and said, “surely we do not have to give publicity to such things all over the world. Wouldn’t you think the censorship which is now in force could stop this kind of reporting?”

Toward a better understanding of Canada and Korea

Statistics given by one North Korean source claim that, during the US bombing campaign, “428,000 bombs were dropped on Pyongyang alone, the number more than that of Pyongyang citizens at that time.” The source further states that “the US had completely reduced the whole territory of Korea into ashes by showering bombs of nearly 600,000 tons, 3.7 times greater than those dropped on Japan during the Pacific War, even using napalm bombs prohibited by the international conventions.” Far from simple state propaganda, these figures have been corroborated by a number of anti-North Korea journalists in the West, including Washington Post contributor Blaine Harden.

North Korea’s development of a nuclear arms arsenal must be viewed in this context. Tim Beal explains the significance of the state’s nuclear program in the following terms:

Here was a small country that, while unable to instigate war against the United States—a preposterous myth given the huge disparity in military power—was able to threaten retaliation if attacked again. To start a war against the United States would invite inevitable destruction, but to deter through a credible promise of retaliation is something quite different.

To a country devastated by a bombing campaign and isolated from the international community as a result of a “lingering hybrid war” perpetrated by the US and its allies, the development of a nuclear arsenal was a wholly rational move—but, submerged in the night of our ignorance, we in the West tend to view this program as the pet project of a mentally unhinged dictator with his finger perpetually on the nuclear button.

These stereotypes take us no closer to understanding the true history of the Korean War or the present thinking of the North Korean leadership. Likewise, stereotypes about the benevolence of Canada’s contribution to the “peacekeeping effort” do nothing to illuminate the history of Canada’s role in this specific conflict or of Canadian foreign policy more generally.

If Canadians want to obtain anything like a comprehensive history of their state’s actions on the peninsula in the relevant years, Canada’s contribution to the US-led war effort must be situated alongside the grave facts outlined above: support for imperial Japan’s colonization of Korea, support for the atrocious US bombing campaign of 1950-1953, and complicity in the ongoing demonization of North Korea at the expense of a true reckoning with Canada’s past.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at


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