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Armistice & Aftermath

By: Brad St. Croix

Brad St. Croix

Historical Contributor

Brad St. Croix is a freelance historian and researcher. He earned his PhD in history from the University of Ottawa. His dissertation examined the legacy of the Battle of Hong Kong in Canada. He has also written numerous articles for the Juno Beach Centre and the Canadian Military History Journal. He has worked on public history projects with several organizations including the RCAF Foundation, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum, the Canadian War Museum, and Project 44. He runs the OTD Military History social media accounts and YouTube channel.

Introduction

Many North Korean and Chinese POWs feared they would be hurt or killed if returned to their home countries as punishment for being captured or for suspicion of cooperating with the United Nations. UN officials did not want to force POWs to face such a danger. It was eventually decided that prisoners should only be returned if they wished to be – this idea became known as “voluntary repatriation.”

Reaching an agreement to stop the fighting on the Korean peninsula was a long and difficult process. It took years for the two sides to reach a ceasefire, with stumbling blocks such as disputes during negotiations and forcing prisoners of war (POWs) to return to the country they fought for. Peace talks began on July 10, 1951, but an armistice was not reached until July 27, 1953. The Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed by military commanders from the United States (representing the United Nations Command), the Korean People’s Army (North Korea), and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. South Korea refused to sign because its president, Syngman Rhee, was reluctant to accept having failed to unify Korea by force. Despite the South Korean refusal, the armistice ended the war in practice, although not officially.

Armistice Agreement

The Korean War Armistice Agreement was meant to be a temporary measure to stop the fighting so a more permanent diplomatic solution could be reached. When the armistice was signed, Lester B. Pearson was president of the United Nations General Assembly in addition to his role as the secretary of state for external affairs for Canada. He addressed the General Assembly by stating that the agreement was “the end of one chapter of bloodshed and fighting. But it is only the beginning of a new and difficult one – the making of peace.”[i]

Pearson’s Address to the UN General Assembly

As Pearson predicted, this peace has been difficult to achieve. In 1954, talks were held in Geneva, Switzerland, to reach a final settlement to bring permanent peace and reunite the two Koreas. Despite much debate and negotiation, no formal agreement was signed. In the years since, no peace agreement has been reached and the war technically remains ongoing.

Peace on the Korean Peninsula

American General W. K. Harrison, Jr. (left table) signs armistice with North Korean General Nam II (right table) sign documents ending three year Korean conflict, July 23, 1953. Image courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Airforce.

What did “peace” look like on the Korean peninsula? The armistice agreement created a military demarcation line (MDL), which was effectively the front line between the two sides when the armistice was signed. The MDL separated the two sides and continues to form the border between North and South Korea today. To separate the military forces, both sides withdrew two kilometres from the MDL to form a four-kilometre-wide Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which runs 241 kilometres across the width of the Korean peninsula. Both sides were permitted access to their two-kilometre portion of the DMZ but are prohibited from crossing the MDL without approval from the other side.[ii] This agreement is still in effect.

The peace on the Korean peninsula has been disturbed many times since the armistice, but full-out war has been avoided so far. The work of those who negotiated the armistice agreement contributed to maintaining this precarious peace. Article 1, Clause 6 of the agreement states that “Neither side shall execute any hostile act within, from, or against the Demilitarized Zone.” As we will see, this clause has been broken several times, but overall peace has been sustained. Until the 1990s, this continued peace was largely due to the establishment of the UN Military Armistice Commission (MAC), which was set up “to supervise the implementation of this Armistice Agreement and to settle through negotiations any violations of this Armistice Agreement.”[iii]

The MAC meetings took place at Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). At first, MAC was made up of representatives of China, North Korea, and the United Nations Command (UNC). China made a separate peace with South Korea and withdrew from MAC in the early 1990s. Because South Korea refused to sign the armistice agreement, it was not part of MAC until the 1990s, when a South Korean general was named as the chief representative of the UNC. North Korea claimed that only signatories to the armistice agreement could be representatives, however, and have since refused to attend any more MAC meetings. 

MAC still operates, and the UNC continues to appoint representatives despite the North Korean boycott. Communication can be difficult due to the lack of MAC meetings. The buildings set up for this purpose are no longer used, but communication links are maintained between the two sides through informal channels, such as telephone networks or even shouting over the line at the JSA. North and South Korea now have oversight over security personnel stationed in the JSA. In 2018, an agreement was reached that neither side would carry firearms in the JSA, but that agreement has since been abandoned and both sides carry them again.

Once a peace agreement was reached, its terms needed to be enforced. To do so, UN troops patrolled along the length of the military demarcation line on the South Korea side. This was the first time the UN launched a peacekeeping operation with armed soldiers.

Before the Korean War, the UN had begun peacekeeping operations with unarmed observers in the Middle East and at the India-Pakistan border. The “peacekeeping” that took place in Korea was very different from what had come before it. The UN was part of the conflict, so it could not act as a neutral arbiter, which was usually done by literally being positioned between belligerents. In Korea, the UN troops worked to keep peace with an enemy they had just fought.

The Legacy of War in Korea

Canadian Monument at Kapyong, c. 1976/76. Image courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

While no fighting has come close to the level seen between 1950 and 1953, there has been violence between the two sides since the end of the war. From 1966 to 1969, tensions rose again with several armed clashes, beginning with North Korea sending armed guerrillas into South Korea. Soon, exchanges of gunfire across the DMZ became common. In January 1968, North Korean commandos made their way into Seoul, and a firefight broke out near the “Blue House,” at the time the official residence of South Korea’s president (the office and residence was relocated in 2022). Also, that month USS Pueblo, an American surveillance ship, was captured by the North Koreans, and its crew was held for 11 months. This period of fighting and increased tensions has been called the “Second Korean War.”[iv]

There have been several North Korean attempts to cross the DMZ without detection. Many North Korean tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea were discovered in the 1970s. Some fighting took place during the discovery of the first tunnel, but there has been none since that initial discovery. One of the tunnels has been turned into a tourist attraction, but photography is not allowed and the military demarcation line is blocked by three barricades, to stop any North Korean attempts to still use the tunnel. Visitors can enter the tunnel and walk 300 metres up to the third barricade, where the second is visible through a small window.

Direct violence has also happened in the area jointly administered by both sides. In 1976, two American soldiers were murdered by North Korean soldiers while trying to cut down a tree blocking the view between a UN checkpoint and an observation post in the Joint Security Area. The Americans and South Koreans responded in force with Operation Paul Bunyan, using armoured and air support to protect the soldiers who finally chopped down the tree. Tensions continue to ebb and flow at the JSA as both sides maintain security forces within the area, but ever since the murders they do not cross over the MDL into each other’s side. International relations also affect the mood at the JSA. But despite the uncertainty at the JSA, it is now a tourist attraction.

North and South Korea have developed very differently since the end of the fighting in 1953. Despite the early repressive and dictatorial nature of the Syngman Rhee government, South Korea has developed into a flourishing democracy with a strong economy. However, because of the continuing threat posed by North Korea, South Korea maintains a strong military and air-raid shelters for its people and conducts nationwide civil defence drills. 

North Korea remains one of the most closed-off societies in the world. Little is known about daily life in North Korea, as its people remain under the despotic control of the Kim regime. Famine has hit the country many times since the end of the fighting. North Korea maintains a large military, although its quality is open to debate. It continues to try to develop long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

Canadians in Korea after 1953 Armistice

Canadian officers under the United Nations Command read about the 1953 armistice on the Korean Peninsula. Image courtesy of the Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis Historical/Getty Images/CNN, and CTV News.

After the armistice was reached in July 1953, Canadian soldiers, sailors, and aviators remained in Korea to contribute to the peacekeeping mission on the peninsula. This was one of the first times Canadians acted as peacekeepers under the UN. It was not to be the last.

Neary 7,000 Canadians served as peacekeepers from July 1953 to mid-1957. Canadian soldiers were tasked with monitoring the North Korean side of the military demarcation line and observing as much as possible. Carrying out this work was not as dangerous as the combat they faced in the war, but it still had its challenges.

One event in 1954 demonstrated what the Canadian peacekeepers faced. The MDL itself was covered in land mines, and attempts to clear them had left paths that crossed over the line and back again. In March 1954, two Canadian soldiers, who were trying to avoid land mines, were caught on the opposite side of the MDL by North Korea troops.[v]The soldiers were returned quickly, but this incident highlights the work that continued after the fighting in Korea ended. 

The Canadian military presence in Korea started to wind down in the mid-1950s. In June 1954, the aircraft of the 426 Transport Squadron, which were supplying UN forces, were the first to cease operations. Soldiers of the Canadian Army remained in Korea until December 1954. The last Royal Canadian Navy destroyer to serve in Korea, HMCS Sioux, departed on September 7, 1955. The last Canadian unit to leave Korea was the Canadian Medical Detachment, which did so in June 1957.[vi] All Canadian military personnel who served in Korea from 1950 to 1957 are considered Korean War veterans. 

The hard realities of Cold War–era politics were what led to Canadians fighting and dying to preserve South Korea as an independent country. With the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Canadian government had achieved its goals for the Canadian military’s participation in the war. Its need to support its American ally, through the UN, while simultaneously avoiding a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, was accomplished. In pursuit of this goal, the Canadian military contribution in Korea was always limited. This restrained involvement was as much a reflection of the nature of the Canadian government’s goals as it was of the limited ability of the Canadian military to do much more because of its commitments in Europe. 

Canadian Peacekeeping 

Canadian RCMP Officer (Mountie) with a little girl on Korea Day, 1967. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

After the end of the fighting in Korea, the Canadian military was mostly involved in peacekeeping operations for the rest of the 20th century. The first major peacekeeping operation that Canadians were involved in after fighting in Korea was a result of the Suez Crisis in Egypt. This crisis came about after the Egyptian government seized control of the Suez Canal from the Suez Canal Company, a French-British joint venture. In October 1956, British, French, and Israeli forces invaded Egypt in an attempt to take back control of the canal. With the hope of bringing peace to the region, and maintaining it, Lester B. Pearson suggested that the UN create the first large-scale armed peacekeeping force to mediate in the conflict. Canadians were part of the contingent that went to Egypt. Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his efforts. 

Beginning with the Suez Crisis, Canada has been labelled as a country of peacekeepers, with more than 125,000 Canadian military personnel serving in that role.[vii] The Canadian military has been engaged in peacekeeping operations in places such as the Congo, Cyprus, the Golan Heights, the Balkans, Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Personnel of the Canadian military continue to support UN peacekeeping missions throughout the world. All of this legacy of peacekeeping began with Canadians in Korea.


[i] Herbert Fairlie Wood, Strange Battleground: The Operations in Korea and Their Effects on the Defence Policy of Canada(Department of National Defence, 1966, 287).

[ii] United Nations Command, Armistice Negotiations

[iii] United Nations, Armistice Agreement, Volume I, Text of Agreement

[iv] Mitchell Lerner, “The Second Korean War,” Wilson Center

[v] Canada Declassified, “CDKW00715 – The 38th Parallel.” 

[vi] United Nations Command, “Canada.” 

[vii] Veterans Affairs Canada, “Canada and International Peacekeeping.”