Canada’s Relations with the Korean Peninsula, by Dean J. Ouellette

[The following is taken from a paper by Dean J. Ouellette, Assistant Professor, Kyungnam University in Seoul. A Canadian friend of CanKor since the early days, Prof. Ouellette edits the Institute of Far Eastern Studies IFES Forum. The paper from which this excerpt is taken is a revised version of an article that recently appeared in Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report, vol. 4, no. 3 (September 2012). To read the complete paper, which begins with Canada-ROK relations, please follow this link. –CanKor]

Crossed flag pin by Promex GmbH

Early History

Canada and Korea share a history that dates back to the late 19th century, when Canadian missionaries arrived on the peninsula, and introduced Western medicine and education, and helped with organizing and fundraising to build hospitals and schools. One early Canuck even supported Koreans during the March 1, 1919 Independence Movement, and ended up being deported by the Japanese colonial authorities.

Official Canadian government involvement in Korea began in 1947 when Canada participated in the United Nations Commission supervising liberated Korea’s then free elections. Canada later formally recognized South Korea in 1949. Canada also got involved in the Korea War (1950 – 1953) — although reluctantly at first — by recruiting and sending a “special force” of battalion strength to participate in combat operations in support of the United Nations’ contingent. Canada’s troops first saw action in February 1951. Two months later in April 1951, this special force distinguished itself at the battle of Kapyong. Soon afterward, Canadian forces would be augmented to an entire brigade (the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade). By the time the armistice negotiations brought the fighting to a halt in 1953, Canada had sent a total of 26,971 military personnel to the Korean peninsula, the third largest contingent of the UN forces. A total of 516 Canadian soldiers laid down their lives — although only 312 were killed in action; the others died of disease and other causes. If Canada learned anything from the Korean War, it was, as renowned Canadian historian Pierre Berton recounts, to stay out of them, and concentrate on peace and international peacekeeping. [Pierre Berton, Marching As to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899–1953 (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2001), p. 576.]


Canada-DPRK Relations

While the Canada-South Korea relationship looks to expand, Canada’s relations with North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) are anything but normal.

As indicated, the two countries’ soldiers were combatants during the Korean War, and neither side sought to normalize relations with the other after the armistice. But like several other western nations, in the early 2000s, Canada was encouraged by the inter-Korean rapprochement following the first-ever inter-Korean summit in June 2000, and soon afterward normalized relations with North Korea in February 2001.

However, North Korea’s October 2002 admission that it was pursuing a secret uranium-enrichment program derailed expansion of the relationship, as Ottawa responded to the revelation by placing bilateral relations on a “not business as usual” footing.

After witnessing North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 missile launches and nuclear tests, 2009 withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks (the multilateral forum tasked with resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, of which Canada is not a party to), and 2010 military provocations against South Korea, Ottawa announced the adoption of a “controlled engagement policy” toward the DPRK in October 2010, severely limiting official bilateral contact with the North Korean government, resulting in extremely limited government-to-government communication.

As relations stand, Canada has no embassy in Pyongyang, or North Korea in Ottawa. Canada’s ambassador to Seoul serves the dual role as Ottawa’s representative to the DPRK — although Canada’s incumbent ambassador has yet to present his credentials in Pyongyang.

Icy relations at the official level have not prevented Track II (i.e., nongovernmental) exchanges and outreach from taking place. Canada does not provide funds for NGO development assistance programs in the DPRK. Nevertheless, meaningful interaction is taking place on Canadian soil. Just this past July, six North Korean economics professors arrived in Vancouver, Canada to partake in a six-month program at the University of British Colombia where they are scheduled to attend classes in international business, economics, finance, and trade. The program is part of the university’s Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program, which began in 2011.

Other significant Canadian Track II contact comes in the form of nongovernmental humanitarian aid programs to prevent child malnutrition in the DPRK from NGOs like First Steps, which provides aid shipments that include soymilk to orphanages in North Korea.

While the people-to-people exchanges are few and severely limited, they at least provide some contact between the two countries.

With the recent changes in North Korea, Canada should look to loosen up its policy toward the DPRK so that exchanges and communication can increase. While the regime in Pyongyang is unlikely to embark upon any drastic reforms or opening in the near future, signs can be seen that the new leadership in North Korea is putting more energy and effort into improving the country’s economy and lives of its. There is speculation of new economic policies in the works, among which starting next year North Korean farmers may be allowed to sell a certain amount of their crop surplus in excess of state-set quotas. North Korea may be moving toward Chinese-style reforms, and the new leadership may be reining in the conservative military elite opposed to such economic policies (as the recent sacking of de facto army chief Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho from all his official positions would suggest). Regardless, the pace of change will be slow, and steps taken cautiously so as not to unleash social forces that might jeopardize the regime’s control over society.

North Korea watchers also witnessed a surprising development on the cultural front this past summer. The creation of the Moranbong music group and appearance of western music and iconic American cartoon characters at a recent summer concert in Pyongyang, courtesy of the new supreme leader Marshal Kim Jong Un, reveal a break from traditions. The new leader’s wife (Ri Sol Ju) even appeared with him at the concert, and has so since on a number of occasions, gaining a certain amount of media attention herself. This, too, is a significant break from tradition, as the former leaders Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s wives were not public figures, and received little or no recognition from the official media.

While it is too early to tell if these signs signal positive changes for the people of North Korea in the short and long run, it does suggest a window of opportunity for the international community to again reach out to North Korea to encourage the regime’s focus on improving the economy and the lives of North Koreans. For its part, Canada may best begin by reexamining its policy toward the DPRK. At the very least, Canada should reexamine its aid policy to allow government funding for Canadian NGOs looking to conduct cultural exchanges and development assistance projects in North Korea. This would be a small but significant step toward improving the relationship. 

2 Responses to “Canada’s Relations with the Korean Peninsula, by Dean J. Ouellette”

  1. NK NEWS BRIEF | September 26, 2012 « Liberty in North Korea | BLOG Says:

    […] Ouellette on Canada’s relations with NK and Canada’s NK aid […]

  2. In a Mirror Darkly Says:

    Reblogged this on For now we see through a mirror, darkly… and commented:
    For an interesting look at connections and interactions between the DPRK and the US’ northern neighbor, please see CanKor: “CanKor is a Canadian interactive resource on North Korea concerned with seeking rational North Korea policy. CanKor resists the snob factor by bridging the gap between professionals and people whose curiosity has not yet been undermined by inflexible perceptions. CanKor is based on the premise that there is a crucial role to be played in northeast Asia by second-tier middle powers like Canada, Australia and the European Union.”(

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