Local Journalism Initiative reporter
We don’t know exactly what motivated Paul-Émile Tremblay to enlist in the Canadian Army, about a month after his older brother Marcel, a father of four, died in combat in the Korean War in October 1951. The younger brother would also die, of wounds from a bombardment, in September 1952.
As far as we have been able to determine, the Tremblays, from Quebec City, were the only Canadian brothers to die in the Korean War. They are both buried, although not side-by-side, in the United Nations Cemetery near Busan, South Korea, where 376 Canadians are among the 2,267 war dead interred there.
In all, 516 Canadians died in battle or of other causes in the three-year conflict and 1,200 were wounded, from a Canadian contingent that totalled 26,700. By contrast, of the 40,000 Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan over 13 years, 158 died in combat or of related causes.
Historians will note that the 1950-53 conflict on the Korean peninsula was not actually a war, but a United Nations mission to protect South Korea from attack by North Korean and Chinese troops supported by the Soviet Union.
In all, at least three million people, soldiers and civilians, died in the struggle over control of the peninsula, liberated from the Japanese during the Second World War by the Soviets in the north and the United States and allies in the south.
Peace has more or less reigned since the armistice was signed 70 years ago, on July 27, 1953, creating a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel. South Korea eventually became a stable liberal democracy and an economic and cultural powerhouse. The North became an impoverished, militaristic family-cult dictatorship.
Korean War veterans and their survivors can take some satisfaction in the long-term outcome of the conflict, and South Koreans never miss a chance to express their gratitude for what has become a vibrant beacon for democracy in Asia, giving the world cars, computer chips and K-Pop.
There is a particular aspect to the Korean War that is getting some special attention these days, with the armistice being viewed in some quarters as the prototype for the ultimate resolution of Russia’s hopelessly botched and monstrously cruel invasion of Ukraine.
The most recent edition of Foreign Policy magazine contains several thoughtful articles on the current situation in Ukraine including a piece, “The Korea Model,” by Carter Malkasian, a Korea expert and advisor to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Malkasian writes: “The war ravaging Ukraine bears more than a passing similarity to the Korean War. And for anyone wondering how it might end, the durability of the Korean armistice – and the high human cost in the delay in reaching it – deserve close study.”
The war in Korea lasted three years, during the last two of which parties were trying to negotiate a peace. While officials met 158 times in that period, thousands upon thousands of combatants were being killed or wounded. Malkasian says it was the likelihood the slaughter would continue indefinitely that eventually convinced Stalin – who, bristling with post-war power, called the shots – to allow China and North Korea to engage in peace talks.
Malkasian writes that if the United States, NATO and other supporters of Ukraine decide the time is right to push for negotiations, there are three lessons to be drawn from the end of the Korean War. “First, they need to be willing to fight and talk simultaneously, using battlefield pressure to force demands at the negotiating table. Second, they should include the United Nations in any negotiation, since neutral arbiters are an asset. Finally, they should condition future security assistance and post-conflict support for Ukraine on Kyiv’s willingness to make concessions.”
A key point in the eventual success of the Korea negotiations, was the death of Stalin in March, 1953, allowing Soviet and Chinese leaders to adopt “a softer line on the talks.”
Alas, in the Ukraine situation, the political or physical demise of Putin, though hoped for by many, can’t be counted on. Indeed, should Putin disappear, one senses the war would be over in a Moscow minute.
In any event, should diplomats and military commanders use the Korea model to resolve the agonizing and bloody war in Ukraine, that would add value to the sacrifice made by those who gave their lives and their service to the Korean cause. Like the frères Tremblay.