This year, 2020, marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. This conflict, classified at the time in North America as a “police action” for political convenience was of course anything but. Though three years of bitter fighting followed, the Korean War has been rightly classified as a “forgotten war”, unfolding as it did against a backdrop of a “postwar” domestic economic boom at home, far away, in a country few Canadians understood or cared much about outside of its status as a Cold War battleground. Perhaps the most forgotten aspect of the war is how it ended, sixty-seven years ago today, though the impact of a divided Korea is still very much present.
The fighting in the Korean War ended on 27 July 1953 in an armistice signed at Panmunjom, Korea. American Lieutenant-General William K. Harrison Jr. sat at a wide table in a clapboard building. Twenty feet away, North Korean General Nam Il sat at a similar table. Harrison, representing the United Nations Command, and Nam Il, representing the North Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, barely acknowledging each other as they signed eighteen copies of the armistice agreement, six in English, six in Korean, and six in Chinese. The document was the product of more than two years and 158 meetings where the delegates sparred over how best to end the war that began when North Korean invaded South Korea to unify the peninsula by force on 25 June 1950. The agreement established a military armistice commission which would oversee a demilitarized zone which separates North and South Korea to this day, and arrange for the exchange of prisoners of war taken by both sides during three years of combat.
The unceremonious, if somber, signing ceremony reflected the mood further down in the stalemated defensive lines in Korea where the United Nations forces, including the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade (25 CIB), had continued to fight vicious battles in the two years since the armistice talks had begun. As the war diarist for 25 CIB Signals Troop summarized the day of the armistice signing, it was much like any other: “There was a heavy artillery duel all afternoon to put finish to the war. The [Royal Canadian Regiment] received a good portion of the incoming rounds and their only casualty was line communication which was completely taken out.” The military police noted that one of the last Chinese artillery shells to fall in their area, a dud, had crashed into a section cook-house, and that they made arrangements to have it retrieved, defused, and sent on to their museum. Already the war was becoming history.
The closer a unit was to the front lines, the less impressed its members seemed to be with the news that the war was soon to come to an end. Each day was hotter than the last, and artillery and fighting continued apace right up until the hour of the ceasefire, which likely accounted for the soldiers’ blasé attitude. The Royal 22e Régiment was the most skeptical upon learning the news of the armistice: “The news was met with disbelief. The men took the announcement with indifference, sure in the belief this truce cannot last.” The previous day, when it was rumoured the war might end, the war diarist explained that the officers of the unit had little faith that either the Communist North Koreans and Chinese or their own allies, the Republic of Korea, could be trusted to keep the peace. The diarist seemed proud of the soldiers’ reported reactions: “The men of this unit are steady dependable types not given to displays of emotion.” In other units the similar lack of enthusiasm for the impending armistice is apparent from the threadbare entries in the unit war diaries.
The stoic reaction in the front lines was not, however, universal. Over in the lines of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, “many personnel gave a deep sigh of relief knowing that when a Truce was signed we would have to move back to a neutral area.” Earlier, on 3 May 1953, a Chinese raid on a company position on Hill 187 was the deadliest night of the war, with The Royal Canadian Regiment suffering 26 deaths, as well as losing four South Korean soldiers attached as augmentees. So it was unsurprising that “Others are full of joy hoping that the battalion will not have to spend the full 12 months in Korea.” The medical personnel at 25 Field Dressing Station, who helped tend to the dreadful wounds inflicted by the war, were jubilant at news that the war would end, and with it the bloodshed.
The Canadian artillery, the 81st Field Regiment, fired their last round in anger against a Chinese gun crew across the valley at about seven o’clock in the evening. With that, “Everyone appears to be glad that the battle is over and it is hoped that it will be a lasting peace.” Three hours later, at 2200 hrs, the order went out “CEASE FIRE”. Misgivings seemed to dissolve in a wash of flares and lights as the soldiers on both sides of the valley shed light discipline and lit up the landscape in celebration. One of the veterans quoted by Ted Barris in his history of the war, Deadlock in Korea, Walter Mann noted in his diary “Front line lit up just like a grandstand performance at the [Canadian National] Exhibition.” Across the valley, the Chinese troops unfurled a banner reading Long Live Peace, and their propaganda broadcast remarked “Now that we have the armistice, is it not great that you can now go home?”
The following day, it appeared that at least some personnel in the United Nations forces were interested in taking advantage of the peace to reach out to their former enemies across the valley. Reports were lodged with The Royal Canadian Regiment that some soldiers, “military tourists from rear areas,” according to the official history, were walking into no-mans-land out of curiosity, a risky proposition given the number of landmines that had been buried over the years. Notwithstanding the sunny message from the Chinese positions, there would be no “Christmas Truce” moment like the impromptu football game that broke out in no-mans-land in December 1914 during the First World War. The Canadians received instructions to arrest any soldier venturing out of their positions, while the Chinese dropped leaflets informing that anyone who neared Chinese positions would be shot. The fighting had ended, but the animosity had not.
There was little time for celebration. The armistice agreement required both the United Nations forces and the Chinese to pull back from the line of confrontation to allow for the creation of the demilitarized zone. The shelters and dugouts along the Canadian lines had to be dug out, materials salvaged and brought further south, and all within 48 hours. The day after the armistice, a Chinese soldier surrendered to Canadian troops, prompting the military police to ask “Is he a [prisoner of war]? A political refugee or armistice violator?” The armistice negotiations had stalled in part over how to deal with prisoners of war. Most prisoners were exchanged in August 1953; the last Canadian prisoner of war was repatriated in December 1954.
And yet the armistice was not the end of the war. If anything, it signified that the first hot war of the Cold War would end in an ellipsis, a suspended state of conflict where a peaceful future on the peninsula was by no means assured. Canadians remained in Korea after the fighting, monitoring the ceasefire line in smaller and smaller numbers as units were repatriated to Canada, and as Canada focused its resources on NATO and the defence of Western Europe.
The war ended much differently than the Second World War. Rather than the United Nations achieving complete victory, the war ended with the border between North and South Korea more or less where it was when the war began. In pure realpolitik terms, both sides in the conflict had won by not losing. The armistice, though a bitter pill to swallow, was a better alternative to a continued war of attrition or irresponsible escalation.
Beyond the political lens, the impact of the war was both real and expensive. Both Koreas were savaged by the campaigns that reached to the northern and southern extremes of the peninsula. More than two million civilians had been killed, ten million families were separated by the war. Millions of refugees needed to be fed, housed, cities needed to be rebuilt. The extreme hardships suffered by both sides in the war deepened distrust and further solidified attitudes in both Koreas along Cold War battle lines. Reunification under such conditions was out of the question for generations. Indeed, preliminary talks about reunification held in Geneva in 1954 foundered almost immediately. China, whose forces suffered more than one million casualties, including 183,108 fatalities, celebrated the end of the war as they had fought a nuclear superpower and its allies to a standstill and secured the borders of their North Korean ally. The war marked China’s emergence as a regional military force. Canada had suffered (by December 1956) 516 deaths connected to the Korean War. Brigadier J.V. Allard, commanding officer 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and witness to the chilly armistice signing ceremony at Panmunjom praised his soldiers “for your magnificent performance for holding the lines against numerous odds.” Returning Canadian veterans of the Korean War received few such accolades for their accomplishments overseas. Those fortunate enough to live long enough to witness South Korea’s remarkable political and economic recovery from the war, even decades later, marvel at what they were able to play a part in safeguarding.
Andrew Burtch is the Canadian War Museum’s post-1945 Historian. As curator of Gallery 4: A Violent Peace, he is responsible for all questions relating to conflicts from the beginning of the Cold War to the present day.