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Decades after Canadian troops saw combat in the Korean War, a small, little-known group of them are still on the frontier, keeping an eye on one of the world's most militarized places. Nathan VanderKlippe looks at the dangers they face

Commander Robert Watt is part of a six-person Canadian military contingent to the United Nations Command, which is charged with defending South Korea against North Korea. The soldiers keep watch over the demilitarized zone between the two countries, which includes the truce village of Panmunjom, whose blue buildings mark the site where the armistice ending the Korean War was signed.


Robert Watt is a naval commander and expert in explosives ordnance disposal who has led forces in Afghanistan, taught others how to defuse home-made bombs and served as a top military diver.

But for most of the past three years, he has taken on what may be the most complex and, occasionally, bizarre role in his career. As chief of staff for the UN Command Military Armistice Commission, Watt has the task of supervising the ceasefire that, for nearly seven decades, has largely put a stop to hostilities between North and South Korea.

"We're just trying to keep a lid on one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world," he said. The 245- kilometre-long demilitarized zone that separates the two countries – which is in reality bristling with weaponry – passes within 100 kilometres of athletic venues at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

But Watt is not among the 28,500 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea.

He is, instead, Canadian, part of a six-person military contingent assigned to the UN Command, the U.S.-led combat force dedicated to defending South Korea (the armistice commission is a semi-autonomous body under the UN Command).

It's a little-known posting that underscores Canada's ongoing involvement in one of the world's most prominent geostrategic hot spots, between a hermetic regime wielding new nuclear power and its neighbour, backed by the world's mightiest military.

What is the Korean DMZ? A visual primer


Their duties here thrust Canada into a place that is as strange as it is dangerous: where so many of the markers have vanished along the military demarcation line, which serves as an international border, that no one is sure any longer of its exact location; where a DMZ building steps from that line still bears the bullet holes from the violent defection of a North Korean soldier in December; and where a pair of telephones meant to connect the two neighbouring countries have gone unanswered since 2013. (The so-called bat phones at the Joint Security Area, known in South Korea as Panmunjom, are used for military-to-military communication; a separate line, cut in 2016 after North Korea's fourth nuclear test, was reactivated last month and has allowed communication around the countries' Olympics rapprochement.)

"We can't even get North Korea to agree to pick up the phone. It's tricky," Watt said. His tasks include equipping soldiers with bullhorns to notify the North Koreans that a forest fire has broken out in the DMZ, and beg them not to shoot helicopters dispatched to quench the flames. "It's a really awkward kind of dance that we do with them," he said.

"There's so many things that we could resolve so much more easily if they would just sit down and talk with us."

Though they are in uniform, the Canadians here say their role is dedicated to averting conflict.

"We're prepared for a fight. But we're not looking for one," said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Kouri, an international affairs adviser to the top command. "The best fight we're going to have is the one we don't have to have," he added. "We're creating the space for diplomatic resolutions."

The inter-Korean dialogue that has taken place during the runup to the Olympics, he said, is hopefully "a harbinger of things to come."

But if fighting breaks out again, the Canadians in uniform here constitute a tangible connection to the time, nearly 70 years ago, when the Louis St. Laurent government dispatched troops to the Korean peninsula. Canada went on to send more than 26,000 soldiers to the Korean War, and has a moral and historical obligation to continue the fight if need be, said Marius Grinius, a former Canadian ambassador to South Korea.

"Ask any Canadian Korean War veteran," he said. "Seeing what a vibrant democracy South Korea is, they will tell you that all of their sacrifices, including those of their brothers in arms who died, were not in vain. They would also expect future generations of Canadians to help safeguard South Korea's hard-won freedom."

Han River, Korea, 1951: Long line of trucks carry soldiers from the 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade across a pontoon bridge as they push northward to join an assault against Communist forces. CANADIAN DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Han River, Korea, 2018: A barbed wire fence runs alongside the river near the DMZ. CARL COURT/GETTY IMAGES

But as threats of a pre-emptive "bloody nose" strike against North Korea drip out of the White House, Ottawa is quick to point out that "Canada's active membership in the United Nations Command does not create a legal obligation to deploy military forces to the Korean peninsula in the event of hostilities," Brianne Maxwell, a spokeswoman with Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement.

Any fresh troop deployment would lie in the hands of politicians, and David Chatterson, another former Canadian ambassador in Seoul, doubts any Canadian leader, nor those in most of the other 17 "sending state" countries that participated in the Korean War, would order armed forces back.

"I don't think there is any interest or any appetite among any of the sending states, apart from the U.S., to re-engage at any significant level before or after a conflict," he said. Ottawa "wouldn't be sending troops again."

Nor is it clear outside help would even be needed.

"With the Republic of Korea and U.S. combined forces, I think we can deal with the North Korean threat without outside assistance," said Chun Yungwoo, who was South Korea's top representative at international denuclearization talks a decade ago.

"Any full-scale armed conflict with North Korea will be virtually ended before most of the other countries decide whether to send troops. In 72 hours, all known North Korean targets will be destroyed. What we need is only the foot soldiers who will go into North Korea to stabilize."

And South Korea has plenty of people in uniform.

North Korea, too, has made clear it's not interested in dealing with anyone outside the United States. Watt is the only person to have held a military-to-military meeting with North Korea in the past five years. But the North Koreans, knowing he was Canadian, refused to speak with him. They wanted to talk to an American. The meeting lasted 15 minutes.

So why maintain Canadian troops, even a small contingent, in South Korea? It's all about keeping up relations with the U.S., Chatterson says.

"It really doesn't have anything to do with Korea, that's more of an accident of geography and history," he said.

"The Americans are there. So we're there."

On the South Korean side of the DMZ, a bunker is built into an operational trench system overlooking the main highway leading toward North Korea. The zone is heavily mined, and on the northern side, artillery installations lie ready to fire devastation at the south.

There's another reason, too: If war breaks out, "there's probably two million people that might need evacuation," said Lieutenant-Colonel James Follwell, commander of the Canadian contingent to the United Nations Command. Of those, at least 27,000 hold Canadian passports.

The Canadians here also occupy a front-row seat to a country that regularly threatens to rain hellfire on the West.

From the South Korean side of the military demarcation line, Watt can look out on hills that hide North Korean artillery capable of lobbing devastation at Seoul, as well as towers used to conduct electronic warfare (cellphones go dead on the South Korean side; the military says it's to prevent North Korean hacking).

The Canadian contingent includes people involved in intelligence, logistics and providing strategic counsel to the top U.S. military leadership.

Kouri, the lieutenant-colonel, interviews North Korean defectors, whom he calls refugees, probing their attachment to the country's regime. Some, he has discovered, maintain profound loyalty long after they've left. Others "questioned the facade all along," he said.

In North Korea today, "South Korean dramas are very popular, as are Western movies. People are far more aware than would have been the case some time ago."

At the DMZ, Watt has noticed a surprising rise in defections across a zone that is heavily mined. Over his first two years, virtually no one escaped this way. But "we've had in the last six months a dramatic increase," he said. He's not certain why; a South Korean soldier also stationed at the DMZ said international pressure isn't having a visible impact.

"Are the main forces, central powers in the North Korean regime going through a hard time? From what we know, they're really not," the soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted because of his work on the front lines.

"I don't think the sanctions are having as much of an effect as we hoped."

But Watt spoke with a recent defector from an upper-middle-class North Korean family.

"He implied that his wife died, which was the key to them leaving – died just due to lack of access to basic medicine," he said. "If those kinds of people are starting to depart the regime, there's clearly something afoot, something has changed," he added.

"People are willing to put up with a lot as long as they're getting the basics of life."