Tensions rise between North and South Korea
Canada’s role in conflict uncertain as hostilities come to a head
Although the two Koreas, North and South, have technically been at war with each other since the Korean War began in 1950, the two nations have remained relatively conflict-free since agreeing to cease hostilities in 1953, despite never formally signing an official peace treaty.
Unfortunately, it appears that armed conflict is once again a realistic possibility on the Korean peninsula, as recent troubles between the two nations – which, at the best of times, could be described as tense – have many fearing the worst.
On the morning of Nov. 23, South Korea – which publicly announced its plans one week earlier – prepared to carry out military exercises on their territorial waters off Baengynyeong Island and Yeonpyeong Island, in an attempt to sharpen its military capabilities against North Korea. In March, North Korea was deemed responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, after an international investigation, despite not claiming responsibility.
The exercises, which mobilized 70,000 South Korean troops from the air force, army, marines, and navy, were allegedly viewed by North Korea as a threat, and thus prompted the North to send a faxed message to South Korea. According to South Korean Joint Chief of Staff Officials, the message stated the North would not, “just sit back while the South is carrying out the live-fire exercise.”
Despite the North’s warnings, the South carried on with their military exercises.
Four and a half hours after South Korea began their live-fire drills, North Korea responded with artillery fire from coastal artillery batteries in Mudo and Kaemori, located in North Korea’s Hwanghae Province.
The bombardment of firing, which consisted of 180 shells and took place in two waves of approximately 30 minutes each, landed on both a South Korean military camp and on the Yeonpyeong Island’s principal settlement. Homes and shops were destroyed, four were killed and another 19 injured.
In retaliation to this attack, South Korean forces responded with approximately 80 shells of their own.
Although the conflict only lasted a little more than two hours, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, strongly condemned North Korea’s attack, calling it “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”
In response to North Korea’s attacks, US President Barack Obama called the instigation “outrageous.” To serve as a warning for the potential repercussions of more North Korean attacks, on Nov. 28, Obama also took part in joint military exercises with South Korea.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said that the naval operations are “no more than an attempt to find a pretext for aggression and ignite a war at any cost.” They further warned that the drills “are putting the Korean Peninsula at a state of ultra-emergency.”
As for what all of this means to Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemned North Korea’s artillery attack calling it “the latest in a series of aggressive and provocative actions by North Korea, which continue to represent a grave threat to international security and stability in northeast Asia.” Harper further urged North Korea “to refrain from further reckless and belligerent actions.”
However, if either party decides to ignore Harper’s – and the overwhelming majority of other world leaders’ – pleas to refrain from more violent actions, and war does break out on the Korean peninsula, Canada may be contractually obligated to become involved, according to a briefing note that was prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay after North Korea successfully detonated a nuclear device last year.
Canada, which was one of the 16 nations involved in the Korean War, signed the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended the three years of conflict. Due to that, the country could be called upon to provide support for South Korea.
Paul Evans, the director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, disagrees. He doesn’t believe Canada will be obligated to become involved.
“It’s a technical legal question, rather than a political question. Not an automatic reprise of 1950-1953,” said Evans. “The technical legal side is that Canada is a part of the commission, but it doesn’t commit Canada or the UN – we’re not locked into any role in the event that hostilities resume.”
Regardless of which countries become involved in a potential conflict between the Koreas, the repercussions of another fallout would likely be even greater than that of the first Korean War. During that war, there were over two million casualties. North Korea is currently one the world’s most militarized nations, and has shown with previous tests that they are more than willing to showcase their nuclear might.