COLD WAR AUSTRALIA - KOREAN WAR
At 5am on 25
June 1950, forces from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
drove south across the 38th parallel into the Republic of
assumption in the West at the time was that the 38-year old leader in
the North, Kim Il Sung was a stooge of Moscow. Soviet archives reveal
that the initiative came from Kim - always more chauvinist than
Marxist-Leninist - who had pressed for a year to gain approval, first
from Stalin and then from an even more reluctant Mao.
Within four days, Australia was supporting for the southerners dominated
by the 75-year old Methodist, Dr Syngman Rhee, who had returned in 1945
after forty years of almost continuous exile in the United States.
most of the few Australians to know any Koreans were missionaries,
including one of the Presbyterian aunts of prime minister Menzies.
Australian prisoners-of-war encountered Koreans as their most brutal
guards. In Japan, POWs worked alongside forced Korean labourers. The
Korean as master and slave flowed from Japan’s annexation of the
peninsula in 1910, bottling up the pressures for land reform and
independence that burst forth upon Tokyo’s surrender.
The Soviets and US had agreed to a divided occupation, supervised
by a four-party trusteeship to include the UK and China. On a wall map
of the Far East, a US colonel drew the demarcation line as far north as
he dared go without upsetting his Communist allies. Soviet forces halted
at that 38th parallel and waited for the US troops.
Incursions from both sides were inevitable along a border which was no
more than a surveyor’s line across mountainous terrain. Few Koreans
accepted division of their homeland. Indeed, a summons for the
Australian UNCOK rapporteur to
appear before the UN General Assembly in 1951 worried Canberra least
that officer’s documentation of ‘the frequently expressed desire of
Syngman Rhee to invade North Korea’ embarrass the US position of
unprovoked aggression by the communists.
Australia was the only country to have members on all the three
successive UN Commissions on Korea. Hence, it is possible to sketch the
fate of Korea in the late 1940s through the reports and actions of
The arrangements between the US and the USSR broke down early in
At the UN,
Australia joined Canada early in 1947 as the only opponents of separate
elections, but later came around the US position. In New York, late in
1948, an Australian diplomat, James Plimsoll, crafted a resolution to
set up a government in the south without endorsing its claim to
represent the whole country. Australia’s man in Seoul absented himself
from the proclamation of the new state in August 1948. In February 1948,
Australia’s Colonel Jackson had concluded that any elections conducted
under Rhee would return ‘a rightist Fascist government’. Canberra
withheld recognition for a year.
Australian officials condemned the Rhee regime as ‘associated
closely with unscrupulous landlords’ and for keeping itself in power
by ‘a vicious police’ inherited from the Japanese. In November 1949,
Australian foreign correspondent Dennis Warner quoted a moderate: ‘the
police are terrorist and the terrorists are police’. A month into the
war, a Sydney Morning Herald
journalist reported ‘apathy’ and avarice as the dominant attitudes
among a peasantry ‘bullied by the South Korean military
… which take … what they want’.
By far the most significant Australian activities were those of Squadron
leader R. J. Rankin and Major F. S. B. Peach who were the only UN
military observers to reach the 38th parallel. Relying on ROK
informants, the pair spent the fortnight up to 23 June 1950 around the
border where they saw no sign of ‘unusual activity’ by either side,
yet came away with the impression that a front-line intelligence post
‘knew that there was something up’. Rankin and Peach returned to
Seoul to submit these impressions hours before the northerners moved.
At the United Nations, the US used a beefed-up synopsis of the
Australians’ report to secure the seven Security Council votes needed
to call for assistance to the ROK. The Soviet permanent representative
had absented himself in protest against the presence of the Nationalist
Chinese in refuge on Formosa from the communists governing the mainland.
Paradoxically, the US claim that the Australians had confirmed an
invasion from the north was as false as the allegation that the north
had initiated the war was true.
By the end of
June 1950, Australia offered the frigate Shoalhaven
and the destroyer Bataan, with
the proviso that they not be used around Formosa where the US had sent
its Seventh Fleet to prevent a conclusion to the civil war in China.
Following the maxim that war was publicity by other means, US Commander
General Douglas Macarthur annoyed Menzies by informing reporters of a
request for the RAAF No. 77 Mustang Squadron based in Japan before
Canberra could consider the matter.
Menzies opposed sending Australian land forces. His government had
decided to bring home its contingents in the occupation of Japan to
train the 18-year olds who were being called up for National Service.
Dominating Menzies’ strategy was commitment to the United Kingdom. On
21 June, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field-Marshall Sir
William Slim, directed talks in Melbourne to again make the Middle East
Australia’s priority in event of a global conflict, a role which
Hostilities in Korea only confirmed this Europe-centered thinking. Flying
to London on 10 July, and writing with one of the new-fangled ballpoint
pens in an old school exercise book, Menzies opined: ‘All these Asian
adventures are diversion by the Russians (a) to contain substantial
democratic forces (b) to create a psychology which will make countries
like Australia unwilling to make commitments outside SE Asia’.
On 14 July, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie approached member states for
land troops. With Menzies away, External Affairs Minister Percy Spender
grabbed at the chance to help the US and thus get its support for his
Pacific Pact, an equivalent to NATO. Menzies, on the other hand,
preferred Australia’s joining NATO. Advised in London by Slim that the
British would not be sending soldiers, Menzies cabled ‘No’ to
Spender, before setting out for New York on the Queen
Meanwhile, the UK Military liaison in New York warned London that the US
was annoyed at Britain’s failure to participate. Hence, on 26 July,
its High Commission advised External Affairs that, in a few hours, His
Majesty’s government would announce its offer of land forces.
Department head, Alan Watt, took a ‘fast car’ from Canberra to Moss
Vale where Spender was recuperating from a perforated ulcer. Alarmed at
being seen to trail the UK in support for the US, Spender strode up and
down: ‘Watt, it’s not going to happen, its not going to happen’.
Spender then dragged Acting Prime Minister Artie Fadden of the platform
at a Country Party conference in Brisbane to tell him he had to offer 3rd
Battalion, RAR, from Japan. Fadden feared the wrath of the ‘Big
Fellow’ but finally went along. At 7pm, ABC news announced an ‘in
Menzies sounded ‘sour’ when Spender phoned him on board ship. Did he
suspect that his ministers were plotting his overthrow as in 1941? Any
such worries were sustained by Spender’s inability to give the
background, advising him not to speak to the press until briefed by an
External Affairs representative who would board the liner before she
docked on 27th. After a few minutes in his cabin with those
cables, the prime minister emerged to praise the decision as his own.
Australian support for the US was never uncritical. As the US-led forces
pushed north over the 38th parallel, Canberra opposed handing
administration of the north over to Rhee’s thugs, was against both the
bombing of China and the use of Nationalist Chinese troops.
The communist press here accused Menzies of trading ‘diggers for
dollars’ when he returned with $US250m. in loans from the World Bank.
It is truer to say that Spender had bartered Australians for his Pacific
Pact, only to be fobbed off a year later with the ANZUS Treaty. Spender
and Menzies thought they were choosing between two theatres of conflict
when they were setting in place another milestone in a shift between two
‘great and powerful friends’.
Demand for war materials capsized the Australian economy as 17 percent
inflation made mock of Menzies’s election promise to ‘put value back
into the pound’. To contain local demand and avoid a currency
appreciation, the government imposed a 20 percent withholding tax on
wool earnings which incensed Fadden’s supporters.
On 5 August, 80 percent of Australians polled by Gallup supported
engagement in Korea, with only 5 percent against. The respondents were
less certain why hostilities had commenced. Six out of ten blamed
communist or Russian aggression; 9 percent identified a civil war, and 7
percent pointed to US greed. A quarter had no opinion. Only a third
favoured introducing Japanese troops and no more than a quarter wanted
to use the atom bomb. One in three feared that the conflict was the
prelude to yet another world war, compared with 55 percent of that
opinion in the USA.
Before the achievement of a lasting armistice in July 1953, 278
Australian servicemen were dead. Three to four million Koreans had lost
their lives, 10 percent of the population. The outcome of ‘so terrible a liberation’ was the status quo ante along the 38th parallel. US firepower did
not deter communist-led national liberation movement across Indo-China.
Both north and south were even less democratic.