DND News

Capt Suhan Kwon: a tribute to Kapyong

The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was a tense struggle between the forces of communism and democracy began after the Second World War. More than 26,000 Canadians served in the cause of peace and freedom in this effort organized by the United Nations. Some of the heaviest fighting took place during the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951.

More than six decades after the successful stand of 700 Canadian soldiers against 5,000 enemy troops, the Battle of Kapyong inspired Captain Suhan Kwon to join the Canadian Army (CA).

“Canada sent one of the largest contingents to Korea. It is a way for me to give back,” explained Capt Kwon, who immigrated with his family to Canada from Korea when he was nine years old.  Now a Regular Force Logistics Officer, he is stationed at 31 Canadian Brigade Group Headquarters in London, Ontario.

On April 24, 1951, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) stopped a communist invasion and abruptly changed the tone of the Korean War from an offensive Chinese effort to one of withdrawal. Dan Bjarnason, a former CBC television correspondent and author of Triumph at Kapyong: Canada’s Pivotal Battle in Korea (2011, Dundurn Toronto) describes Kapyong as “one of the most perfectly fought defensive battles in history.”

Known as Hill 677, the location of the battle in Kapyong happens to be the site of Capt Kwon’s ancestral burial grounds and a place he has visited often. “When we visited the burial grounds to pay tribute to our ancestors, we would pass by the commemorative plaque for these Canadian soldiers,” explained Capt Kwon. The Battle of Kapyong, despite the 700 Canadians’ ferocity against 5,000 of the enemy, cost the lives of 10 Canadians, with 23 wounded. Both the battle’s outcome and the plaque are testaments to the Patricias’ bravery and their training.

Capt Kwon’s decision to join the Canadian Army went against one of the intentions behind his family’s move across the Pacific Ocean and much of the North American continent, to settle in North York, Ontario. “One of the factors behind my family’s decision to move to Canada was so that I did not have to serve in the Korean military, which is mandatory, but I got myself into the Canadian Army,” he laughs. His father spent 10 years in the South Korean Army.

However, his family was quick to recognize the advantages of a military career for their son, including an education at the Royal Military College (RMC) of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. “My dad was happy with my decision to join the Canadian Army because it meant that I could study and pursue sports. If I had just gone to another university, I would have had to drop the sports. My mom was not really OK with it but she does like the fact that I received a free university education.”

The Korean martial art of Taekwondo was, in large part, behind Capt Kwon’s decision to attend RMC where it was offered as one of the school’s varsity teams at that time. One of the oldest forms of martial arts in the world, it is at least 2,000 years old. The name comes from words that most accurately describe the art: Tae (foot), Kwon (hand), and Do (art). Capt Kwon currently holds a 5th Degree Black Belt and teaches both military and civilian personnel after work. He continues to represent the Canadian Armed Forces Taekwondo Association (CAFTA) and competes in the sport with a CAF logo imprinted on his uniform.

The leap from civilian life at his parents’ home to fulltime university studies in business administration and a varsity sport was a large one for Capt Kwon. “All I remember is running and making my bed,” he says of his RMC years. “Wake up, run five kilometres, shower, inspection, school and varsity Taekwondo training. Yes, the training was difficult and sometimes overwhelming but it made me ready to be challenged in other ways.”

While at RMC, Capt Kwon’s appreciation of the opportunities available to Canadian military members increased. “Everyone has a certain perception of the Army. I learned, for instance, the Logistics trade includes my own specialty, Finance, as well as Transportation, Supply, Human Resources, and Food Services.”

There have been occasions in Capt Kwon’s experience where he has bumped against racism. He feels that it is mostly due to residual stereotypes and lack of cultural sensitivity. For example, the alphabetical grouping system used during Capt Kwon’s Basic Training had an unfortunate consequence. “My group was large and mostly Asian including the Kims, the Parks [also common Korean last name] and the Lees.  The staff quickly grew confused and could not keep us straight resulting in unwanted attention and racial jokes. Usually but not always, our group found the jokes humorous rather than offensive. And it brought our group closer, giving us opportunities to share our culture with our peers.”

The positives of being part of the CA remain front and centre for Capt Kwon. “It is like a playground. Even though my trade is Logistics, I am not limited to this area and there are so many opportunities. If I want to start an interest group, such as the Defence Visible Minority Advisory Group, or unit sports team, my chain of command is always supportive. Plus, there are occasional weapons ranges, rucksack marches and other unit activities that keep me active and interested.”

His family is behind Capt Kwon’s decision to remain with CA. In fact, family is the reason for his unusual posting as a Regular Force member at a Reserve unit. “The Chain of Command (CoC) really cares for our moral welfare. Last year, my dad had a heart transplant.  My CA benefits helped all of my family members – through my time off with compassionate leave, and my latest posting to London, Ontario, arranged by my CoC so that I can be near my family.”

– By Anne Duggan, Army Public Affairs