Why South Korea is now a free nation

I’ve always been struck by what Michael Czuboka, a veteran of the Korean War, told me: “If we (the United Nations force) hadn’t gone to Korea, South Korea wouldn’t be the rich and free country it is today.”

Indeed, as opposed to the nation to the south of the 38th Parallel, the North Korea of today is a country steeped in misery, led by a dictator with such dillusions of grandeur that he has launched his nation of 25-million people toward a destructive path of a nuclear weapons program (four nuclear bombs have been successfully tested) and a commitment to build ballistic missles to carry such weapons. Meanwhile,  his people face continual famines and cower in submission under the tight-fisted control of his regime.

According to a recent Reuters report: “North Korea appears to be preparing a test-launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said on Tuesday, after what the United States described as the ‘fiery, catastrophic’ failure of the first attempt.

“Separately, President Barack Obama said the United States is working on defending itself and its allies against potential threats from what he called an ‘erratic’ country with an ‘irresponsible’ leader.”

The “irresponsible leader” of North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), is Kim Jong-Un. But there’s nothing democratic about his rule, which is a continuation of a so-called communist regime established by his grandfather Kim Il-sung in 1948 and maintained by his father  Kim Jong-il until his death in  2011 when Kim Jong-Un became “Supreme Leader.” North Korea operates under a cult of personality and a hereditary dictatorship, rather than “democracy.”

Since the time of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea has pursued a doctrine of unifying the two Koreas — by military force if necessary. This is exactly what happened in 1950, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea.

As a 19-year-old from Rivers, Manitoba, Czuboka saw action at the Battle of Kapyong, which prevented the North Koreans, with the aid of the Chinese troops, from recapturing Seoul, South Korea, and turned the tide of the war. The Battle of Kapyong initiated the stalemate of the 38th Parallel, the border between north and south that remains in effect to this day.

While other UN troops retreated to safer positions along the 38th Parallel, left to face the build-up of Chinese and North Korean forces and expected to hold their ground were a small number of Canadian and Australian troops, supported by New Zealander artillery (16th Field Regiment), with the troops of the British First Middlesex Battalion far to the rear, along with three platoons (five tanks each) of the 72nd U.S. Heavy Tank Battalion beside the main road dissecting the valley. Lieutenant-Colonel “Big Jim” Stone, the commander of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI, or simply, the Pats), issued this order to his men, “No retreat, no surrender.”

“We were told we were supposed to hold the hill,” said Czuboka.

During the Battle of Kapyong, 700 Canadian troops would face Chinese attackers who outnumbered them by about seven-to-one.  On the night of April 22-23, 1951, Chinese and North Koreans struck the western and west-central sections of the UN lines. At this time, the 1st and 9th U.S. Corps were ordered to withdraw. The UN forces withdrawal was turned into a rout by the enemy. At 10 p.m. on the night of the 23rd, the first enemy skirmishing groups arrived, mixed in with the fleeing South Koreans.

In was into this gap that two Chinese divisions comprised of 20,000 men flowed. In 36 hours, they travelled 40 kilometres to Kapyong, confronting the 1,700 badly-outnumbered men of the Patricias and the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR).

Czuboka said his first inkling of what was to come was when the 6th South Korean Division began to push past their position on Hill 677. “We knew then that we were in for it,” said Czuboka. “We didn’t think we’d ever get out of there alive.”

Fortunately, Hill 677 had steep approaches on all sides, giving the defenders an advantage over the Chinese attackers — the Pats could fire downward and roll down grenades.  And to counter the Chinese attack, Czuboka and the men of the 81-millimetre Mortar Platoon had managed, with the help of the Pioneer Platoon, to find a way to bring their American-built M3A1 half-tracks up the slopes in order to haul up 12,000 mortar bombs and support the troops.

By four o’clock in the morning of April 24,  the Chinese and North Koreans had sufficient groups in place for the first set-piece attack against the Australians on Hill 504. By the end of the battle, the Australians had suffered 33 killed and 58 wounded, a far higher total than the Patricias would incur when the Chinese turned to attack them.

Canadian Press correspondent Bill Boss reported that “wave after wave of Chinese (were) repelled in a knock-down, drag-out battle” in the vicinity of Kapyong. Czuboka’s  Mortar Platoon rained bombs on the enemy in support of the rifle companies.

“The main action we had was when 500 Chinese came up from behind us (in the evening of April 24),” said Czuboka. “We turned our mortars around 180 degrees. The Chinese were only about 100 metres from our position ... We had half-tracks mounted with .50-calibre machine guns. Without the mortars and machine guns, I think the battalion would have been wiped out.”

At 4 a.m. on April 26, Lieutenant-Colonel Stone realized that there would be a problem replenishing the forward companies with ammunition if the battle raged on past dawn. He called in ammunition and rations that were dropped by United States Air Force Flying Boxcars that landed accurately on the Canadians’ position. To the weary Canadians it was a welcome sight. “It was tremendous,” said one soldier, who was so hungry after hours of continual fighting that his “stomach was in knots.”

Rearmed and rejuvenated by the food supplies, the Chinese likely knew that the Canadians weren’t going away soon and would continue to defend their position.

Czuboka said that his platoon was ready for more action, but the Chinese didn’t renew their offensive, “and we were allowed to leave.” The Patricias were replaced in the line by U.S. Army troops on April 28.

The Canadian and Australian units, along with a U.S. tank company, that participated in the battle were awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation.

In total, 26,791 Canadians served and 516 died in Korea, the first war fought under the banner of the United Nations, which has been referred to as the “Forgotten War,” despite its importance in preventing South Korea from becoming a thrall of North Korea.

After attending a ceremony in Seoul, commemorating the 55th anniversary of the end of the war, Czuboka said the South Koreans remain grateful to this day that the Canadians helped “save them from communism.”