By Henry Srebrnik
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Canada and South Korea, and on Sept. 12-13 the ambassador of the Republic of Korea, Cho Hee-yong, visited Prince Edward Island to celebrate 2013 as “the year of Korea in Canada.”
While bellicose North Korea languishes under the Orwellian dictatorship of the Kim family, focused on building nuclear weapons while its people starve, South Korea has gone from strength to strength, and is now a modern democratic state, with one of the world’s strongest economies.
Few people in the 1950s would have predicted this. Long a Japanese colony, Korea was partitioned between a Communist north and a capitalist south after 1945. The north, calling itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, attacked the south five years later, and soon Communist Chinese troops entered the war on the northern side.
Canada, as part of a 16-nation American-led United Nations force, fought in the war on behalf of the south. A total of 26, 791 Canadians troops participated; more than 1,200 were seriously wounded and 516 Canadians died in the conflict. Canada supplied the third-largest military contingent, after the United States and Britain, on the Allied side.
The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953. By the time it ended, the south was a wasteland, its capital Seoul, destroyed. In the 1960s, its economy was still comparable with levels in the poorer countries of Africa and Asia.
But South Korea over the past four decades has demonstrated incredible growth and global integration to become a high-tech industrialized economy. It adapted an export-oriented economic strategy, with finished products such as electronics, textiles, ships, automobiles, semiconductors, computers, wireless telecommunications equipment, and steel being some of its most important exports.
Some of its major firms are known throughout the world: Hyundai and Kia are major automobile manufacturers, and LG and Samsung produce televisions and other electronics.
Today South Korea, with its 49 million people, is one of the “Asian tigers,” along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Despite a lack of major natural resources, the economy ranks 15th in the world, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.116 trillion, and it is a member of the G-20.
South Korea is Canada’s seventh-largest trading partner, and Canadian-South Korean two-way trade reached $10.1 billion last year. South Koreans have invested more than $11 billion dollars in Canada over the past four decades, mostly in the field of energy.
More than 23,000 Canadians currently live in South Korea, including over 5,000 English teachers. Altogether, over 100,000 Canadians have taught English in the country over the years. As well, Canadian missionaries were active in the country from the late 19th century on; the first Korean-English dictionary was compiled by a Canadian.
“We are strong allies and partners,” Ambassador Cho told an audience at the University of Prince Edward Island, “and relations have never been stronger.” He expressed his thanks for the “tremendous contribution” Canadians played in the war sixty years ago and also noted that Canada is concerned about the disregard for human rights in North Korea.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.